Last week’s election saw the conservatives lose their overall majority, finishing with only 318 seats (down 13) to Labour’s 262 (up 30). Over the past few days there has been a lot of analysis about what this means for Theresa May, for the Conservative party and for the Labour party, but much less about what it means for Brexit.
Before the election it was suggested that an increased Tory majority would mean a “soft” brexit. Now it turns out, for many commentators, the loss of the Conservative majority means a softer Brexit. Let us stand back and take a sober look at what a minority Conservative government negotiating brexit will actually mean.
On the face of it, May asked for a mandate to deliver on her brexit white paper, and failed to get it. But as I pointed out in my previous analysis it was not just an increased majority she was seeking. From the point of view of brexit it was as important to ensure that MPs were elected on manifestos clearly committed to leave. In that respect, however much the Conservative party has lost in the election, it seems Brexit has gained.
As I recently discussed the Conservative manifesto clearly committed the party to following through on its white paper plan. Some are seeking to argue that, because May failed to get an overall majority the electorate has rejected that plan.
But to justify that assumption we need to look at what the rest of the electorate voted for. The election forced the other parties to make their brexit position clear. The Labour Manifesto commits it to leaving the EU and the Single Market.
Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first.
Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.
Whatever the reasons people had for voting Labour, reversing or softening brexit does not seem to have been one of them. If they had wanted to do that they would have voted Lib Dem or Green.
So we are leaving the EU, and everyone knows you can’t be in the single market without signing up to freedom of movement. This was confirmed in television interviews today by both Jeremy Corbyn (Andrew Marr) and John McDonnel (Peston on Sunday):
I think people would interpret membership of the single market as not respecting the referendum. (John McDonnel)
Without even taking into account the smaller parties that is 580 MPs elected on manifestos committing to the leave the EU and the single market. What, if anything, is different between the Labour and Conservative approaches to brexit? Here is a flavour:
We will end Theresa May’s reckless approach to Brexit, and seek to unite the country around a Brexit deal that works for every community in Britain. We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain. Labour will always put jobs and the economy first.
And there is more like that, from which I conclude that the difference is almost entirely rhetorical. This is unsurprising. Once you accept we are leaving the EU and the ending freedom of movement the basic shape of the deal is clear: The UK will be out of the single market and the customs union, but seeking the closest possible tariff-free trading arrangements. Which is what she said.
The only important grouping that is said to consider staying in the single market a serious possibility is the newly-invigorated Scottish conservatives (with 13 seats, up 12). However with Labour not taking the “Norway option” seriously the numbers just don’t add up. Tory rebels won’t be able to scupper brexit.
May has failed to get a personal mandate, and failed to secure herself another full term in Downing Street. But if her aim was to lock in a cross-party commitment to a proper clean brexit then she has apparently succeeded.