Defeat Makes It Harder for May to Navigate Brexit Demands

Both pragmatists, who want a “soft” Brexit, and hardliners now hold more sway over the prime minister.

British prime minister Theresa May greets European Council president Donald Tusk outside 10 Downing Street in London, England, September 8, 2016
British prime minister Theresa May greets European Council president Donald Tusk outside 10 Downing Street in London, England, September 8, 2016 (European Council)

Theresa May’s election defeat has left her Brexit strategy at the mercy of a divided Tory Party.

May called the election to strengthen her hand but now has even less room to maneuver.

Her Conservatives went down from 330 to 317 seats on Thursday, nine short of a majority. She is forced to rely on the hard-right Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland and its ten lawmakers to stay in power.

As a result, both pragmatists, who campaigned against Brexit, and hardliners, who want a complete break with the EU, can hold the government hostage.

“Open Brexit”

Prominent voices in the first camp are Philip Hammond, the chancellor, and Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader.

The Sunday Times reports that Hammond has conditioned his continued support for May on her prioritizing jobs, not immigration, in the exit negotiations with the EU, which are due to start next week.

Davidson has called for an “open Brexit, not a closed one,” saying she wants the “greatest possible amount of free trade.”

Asked by reporters if that means keeping the United Kingdom in the European single market, Davidson pointed out that the Conservatives had lost their majority “and that means that we do have to listen to other parties.”

Norway-style

Davidson’s team did surprisingly well in Scotland, going up from one to thirteen seats. If it weren’t for them, Labour might have been able to form a government with support of the Scottish National Party. Hence Davidson is in a position to make demands.

Most Scots voted to remain in the European Union last year. They were overruled by majorities in England and Wales.

Scottish attitudes toward immigration and multiculturalism are also generally more relaxed.

For the United Kingdom to negotiate a Norway-style deal with relatively free access to the European single market, it would need to allow free movement of EU nationals.

But that is exactly what May and her right-wing allies can’t or won’t accept.

Taking back control

“Our view of Brexit I don’t think has changed,” the defense secretary, Michael Fallon, told the BBC on Sunday.

We want a partnership with Europe, we want an agreement that maximizes our access to the single market, comes to an arrangement on immigration, continues the security cooperation we already have with Europe.

Brexit Secretary David Davis similarly told ITV:

We’ve made pretty plain what we want to do, it’s outside the single market but with access. It’s outside the customs union but with agreement. It’s taking back control of our laws and borders.

These views are hard to reconcile with those of Davidson and Hammond. Especially for a prime minister who has lost authority in her own party and is now widely regarded as a lame duck.