The Prime Minister made every effort to make the general election about Brexit, and some have seen her setback last Thursday as a rejection of her erstwhile tough position. Pundits and Remainers have spent the weekend on the political chat shows suggesting that a softer Brexit might be on the cards as a result. Despite this, the growing sense is that the Tories lost seats partially because of the traditional reticence of post-industrial constituencies to vote Tory, based on some traditional concerns they hold about Tories, reinforced by the promotion of policies such as fox hunting and the plan to make people pay for social care in later years. The decline in the Tories’ polling numbers from the time of the manifesto launch would seem to corroborate that view. Notwithstanding that, it isn’t yet clear where the new House of Commons stands on Brexit and the various potential permutations thereof. A key inflection point is sure to be the Queen’s Speech, a large chunk of which will need to be given over to Brexit if it is to move forward in this session. The actions of the few Tories with strong views on remaining in the EU have never been so important.
So it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a softer Brexit may be on the cards, depending on what exactly is understood by ‘soft’. Brexit Secretary David Davis and others have been clear that we’re still planning to leave the Single Market and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, though he has a softer position on immigration than May, knows that it would be dangerous to Labour’s new-found position of electoral strength if he were to make too much noise ahead of a possible autumn general election, given how many of his MPs represent Brexit-supporting areas.
What may be on the cards is a retention of the Britain’s place in the customs union, the arrangement by which EU countries can trade freely with each other whilst at the same time imposing common tariffs on outside countries’ products and services. This crucially allows the UK to still sit outside the need for free movement of people, but it does prevent Britain from making its own free trade agreements with third countries. However with the situation in flux, there’s no way of knowing whether EU officials negotiating Brexit will allow this. A scent of desperation from the British Government could result in Brussels playing hard ball, in the hope that Brexit can be scotched if in due course Theresa May falls on her sword. A calculation will need to be made very shortly about which factions in the House of Commons are most likely to be consistent and reliable partners, as well as supportive of the Government’s aims (see separate post about these groups’ and their aims).
So despite the reassurances of Ministers, changes to the Brexit plan may be afoot. David Davis has suggested the manifesto may need to be ‘pruned’, and whilst that mainly refers to domestic issues which put people off voting Tory (or galvanised them to vote Labour) that may include some tweaks to plans for Brexit. Initially this will not be apparent, as the plan is anyway secret to avoid giving the game away during the negotiations, but a softening of rhetoric, and a willingness to listen to concerned voices a bit more, should in time signal that change has occurred, irrespective of statements that the plan remains unchanged.
H+K Strategies Public Affairs team – London