Ah for the days when the United Kingdom – or the British Isles, as we then called ourselves – was still a byword for the political stability that seemed so conspicuously absent elsewhere. Our image today is very different.
It is less than a year since a divisive referendum unexpectedly reversed more than half a century of UK foreign policy. Now a general election, one called expressly to strengthen the Government’s mandate to negotiate the split with the European Union, has resulted in a hung Parliament. The Prime Minister’s campaign slogan of “strong and stable” leadership could hardly ring more hollow.
As Nick Clegg, one of this country’s most committed Europeans, set out in no uncertain terms as he surveyed the post-electoral wreckage: “It is impossible to exaggerate... how self-absorbed and adrift the UK looks to the rest of Europe… I can’t think of any example of a modern mature democracy putting itself in such a vulnerable position.”
The former deputy prime minister was speaking the morning after he had lost his parliamentary seat to the Labour Party’s surge.
Even if, as it appears at the time of writing, Theresa May forms a government supported by the Democratic Unionist Party, the composition of Parliament and the whole political landscape has changed. May went to the country with two objectives: to obtain the personal mandate she lacked because of the way she was propelled to Downing Street in the meltdown that followed the referendum; and to strengthen the Government’s hand as it embarked on what were expected to be complex and difficult bargaining with Brussels.
In the event, the Conservatives lost seats and their majority. As the former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, put it: “We know Theresa May can't now negotiate Brexit for Britain because she told us losing majority would destroy her authority – and it has.”
This is the nub of the problem that now confronts the UK. An election intended to strengthen the country’s negotiating position has left it weakened. If truth were told, the balance of advantage was already turning. After their initial shock at the Brexit vote, the other 27 EU members seemed to be discovering a unity and sense of purpose that had seemed to elude the European Union when it met at 28.
The euro has been strengthening, even as the UK’s economy began to languish. The sweeping victory of Emmanuel Macron in France held out the prospect of a new dynamism within the EU. Such hitherto divisive issues as migration and integrated EU defence seemed to be attracting a growing consensus. That might be more impression than reality – migration (from outside the EU), rather than “free movement” (migration of peoples inside the EU), remains hugely contentious – but the 27 seemed to be looking for joint solutions in a way that the UK’s very presence seemed to have obstructed.
“Self-absorbed and adrift,” Clegg rightly said – and he was referring to us.
And if, as it appears for the time being, May clings to Number 10, she will be weakened on two fronts: with her party in a delicate de facto coalition in Parliament at home, and in relation to the EU abroad.
This was apparent from the early responses from Brussels. The designated chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, suggested that the timetable for talks might be adjusted. The head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, however, insisted that talks should begin as soon as possible. “We can start at 9.30 tomorrow morning,” he said pointedly. In both instances, it was abundantly, embarrassingly, clear who held the more cards.
The Government’s weakened position will also make it harder (and it was already hard) for the UK to project itself as a global player and trader. How much conviction will those efforts carry if, as is likely, all government attempts to legislate for Brexit, including the so-called Grand Repeal Bill, face challenges from a rejuvenated opposition?
It was not immediately apparent from the breakdown of the UK’s vote how far people were voting on Brexit (the whole point of holding the election) and how far the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had successfully shifted the focus on to social policy and away from Europe. There was evidence, however, that Labour had become – at least in some constituencies that had voted strongly against Brexit – the “soft Brexit” party.
This seems to have been a construction put on Labour’s policy by the voters, rather than something Labour had actively campaigned on. The party’s own internal divisions on Europe had encouraged it to avoid the subject. For pro-Remain constituencies to have voted in many cases strongly for Labour, however, suggests that Labour could reasonably reposition itself in Parliament as the “soft Brexit” party.
This, in turn, could have two opposite effects. On the one hand it could complicate May’s ability to win parliamentary votes even further and lead to stalemate in London. If, on the other hand, the Government took its cue from the election result and moderated its apparent attachment to a “hard Brexit”, negotiations with the EU could run more smoothly. Corbyn’s pledge of permanent residence for all EU nationals currently in the UK would be the sort of opening gesture the last government held out against. Maybe that will change.
It is far too early to broach the possibility of a new referendum (at the conclusion of negotiations, perhaps) or to hazard that Labour might, despite its manifesto, think again about leaving the EU Single Market – a precondition for ending “free movement”.
But a weaker UK negotiating with a stronger EU could, paradoxically, make the bargaining easier. It would do nothing for the UK’s often exaggerated view of its stature, however. The EU referendum left the UK diminished internationally – a smaller, more parochial power. The inconclusive election only compounds the damage.
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