The UK's general election: Mandate for a softer Brexit or preparation for going over the cliff edge?

Fabian Zuleeg
2017 unpublished
Prime Minister Theresa May has called for a general election on 8 June, to strengthen her mandate. Under British electoral law she needs a two-thirds majority in Westminster, but the Labour Party already looks set to support this move. This general election will be seen as being under the auspices of Brexit, with the Prime Minister claiming that an early election is "necessary to secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond". Indeed, she has
more » ... d for the opposition parties to make their Brexit vision(s) the central issue of the elections: "Let us tomorrow vote for an election, let us put forward our plans for Brexit and our alternative programmes for government and then let the people decide." But despite this strong linkage between domestic and European politics, it is far from clear what this will mean in terms of the Brexit process. Domestic dominance What seems almost a foregone conclusion (if the opinion polls are any indication) is that this will be a resounding victory for the Conservative Party. The Labour Party seems in no shape to fight, let alone win a general election, and the Liberal Democrats are still a long way from regaining the strength they had when they became junior partners in government in 2010. The threat from UKIP has been seen off by the Conservative Party strongly advocating the Leave position ever since the referendum. And the Scottish National Party will struggle to replicate its stunning electoral success in 2015, when they gained 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats. In consequence, the independence threat from Scotland might well be seen as having been contained. UKIP's raison d'être is likely to be under question and a catastrophic showing of the Labour Party would reopen its leadership question, ensuring that for the foreseeable future the official opposition will be weakened, even if there is a slight recovery of the Liberal Democrats. In contrast, the Conservative Party will be united, having few Remain MPs left given the political preferences of the Conservatives' constituency associations, and led by a Prime Minister who has a strong mandate to deliver Brexit. Towards a soft transition? Some commentators have argued that this will enable the Prime Minister to turn the UK away from the cliff edge; to avoid a hard Brexit at the end of the Article 50 period, when the UK would suddenly be outside the single market and the EU customs union. In this scenario, the Prime Minister could buy some time by accepting a transition deal that would enable the UK to negotiate a long-term trade and investment deal, minimising the negative impact of an abrupt disjuncture. This would also help to avoid the pressure that comes from the very short Article 50 negotiation timeframe and the limitations on negotiating a trade deal during this period. Such a transition is seen by many as being in the UK's best economic interest if Brexit cannot be avoided, and there have been conciliatory statements from the UK government in recent weeks. It remains, however, politically tricky: it does not deliver on the UK's red lines (regaining control and exiting the jurisdiction of the ECJ, and limiting migration), at least not for the foreseeable future. It would also compel the UK to compromise in the Article 50 negotiations, for example with regard to the exit payments and issues such as Gibraltar. But many have claimed that a general election mandate would enable Theresa May and other like-minded Conservatives to push through such a deal, ensuring a softer Brexit.