In Britain's post-election disarray, can a Brexit consensus be found?

The Tories' failure to protect their majority in last week's snap elections has undercut the 'hard Brexit' that Prime Minister May had been advocating. Now some Conservatives are looking to develop a softer exit that all parties can get behind.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron (r.) and British Prime Minister Theresa May attend a joint press conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris Tuesday.

Last week’s shock election results, robbing Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May of a parliamentary majority and much of her authority just as she starts negotiating Britain’s historic withdrawal from the European Union, have thrown the country into turmoil.

Her failed election gamble will almost certainly force Ms. May to back away from the controversial “clean break” from Brussels that she has sought, with all its attendant economic risks. The opposition Labour Party too is at sixes and sevens on its Brexit policy, with senior leaders contradicting each other on critical aspects.

That could, perhaps, usher in a broad compromise on the most divisive issue facing the nation, and pave a more moderate exit route that would leave some ties to Europe intact. Top Conservatives are already mooting the prospects of an all-party commission to set Brexit policy that would find common ground, and present Britain’s EU partners with a stable and accountable negotiating team armed with a strong mandate.

For the moment such an understanding seems a distant prospect. Indeed, the government has given few signs of how it plans to tackle the momentous Brexit negotiations beyond saying that it will not even be ready to start them, as had been planned, next Monday.

“It is shocking,” says one senior European diplomat here. “The government does not seem to have the shadow of an idea of what it wants.”

The Brexit election, sans Brexit

Nearly a year after Britons voted 52 percent to 48 percent to withdraw from the EU, there is still no plan for what kind of withdrawal London should seek, nor is there any consensus on the matter among the political parties, in Parliament or in the country.

This was not the way it was meant to be. May called the snap election, she said, to give her a solid mandate to negotiate the “hard Brexit” that she had advocated ever since the referendum. The increased majority that the opinion polls had predicted, she said, would strengthen her hand against Britain’s EU partners.

Instead, British voters sent a confused message, forcing the Conservatives to negotiate an ad hoc deal, still being worked out, with a small Northern Irish party to secure a wafer-thin parliamentary majority.

The message was confused partly because Brexit actually occupied little campaign time. Since both major parties are split on the question, neither wanted to go into much detail for fear of alienating potential voters. Nor is the European Union a matter of burning importance to most British voters, who are more concerned with the effects of the government’s austerity policies on health care and education.

But the election results revealed sharp splits in British society; most notably, young people turned out in unexpected numbers to vote for the Labour Party and its unusually radical left-wing manifesto. Polls found that they were overwhelmingly against Brexit, while their parents tilted toward leaving the EU.

A similar divide was visible on the map. Though the English Conservative Party lost seats in Parliament, the Scottish Conservatives gained 12 seats. It was no coincidence that the Scottish party leader, Ruth Davidson, like most of her fellow candidates, campaigned during last year’s referendum battle to remain in the EU.

Up in the air

The weakness of the electorate’s enthusiasm for May – whatever motivated it – has had a devastating effect on her plans for Britain’s future relationship with the EU.

May has staked out an uncompromising policy of “hard Brexit,” arguing that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” She has threatened to crash out of the EU in a disorderly departure if it came to that, which alarms British business.

That approach is no longer tenable. Conservative members of Parliament who favor a “soft Brexit” that maintains as many economic links as possible have been emboldened by the recent election results and are expected to start speaking up.

“The government can’t maintain its Brexit position now,” says Hugo Dixon, editor of InFacts, a pro-European website. “They don’t have the numbers in Parliament to drive it through any more.”

Former party leader William Hague argued in an op-ed published in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper – the unofficial house organ of the Conservative party – that “a change both of style and of substance” is called for and that the government “has an opportunity and a duty to tackle intractable issues in new ways,” such as by convening an all-party commission to agree on a Brexit strategy.

Ms. Davidson, meanwhile, has called for “an open Brexit, not a closed one,” that should be worked out with other political forces.

May’s core dilemma, however, is that the ruling Conservative Party remains profoundly split on the issue of Britain’s EU membership. “The more May moves to the middle, the more the hardliners will squawk,” Mr. Dixon points out.

“With her party divided and no majority in Parliament, May will run the constant risk of one side or another rebelling,” predicts Simon Tilford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, a London-based think tank. “It is difficult to see how she can pursue any Brexit in these circumstances.”

'A great big gap in the middle'

Fearful of such deadlock, some Conservative cabinet members are reported to be in secret talks with Labour Party leaders in a bid to construct a common negotiating position. But aside from the fact that to do so they would have to outflank their powerful Euroskeptic wing, and the fact that Labour’s position is vague, “you have to wonder why Labour should help the Conservatives,” points out Mr. Tilford.

“It may be unfortunate from the country’s point of view, but it is in Labour’s interest to let the government stew,” he adds.

Divisions in the political parties reflect the broader splits in society. Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, a pro-European Liberal Democrat who lost his parliamentary seat last Thursday, warned in his concession speech that “we will not pick our way through the very difficult times that our country faces … if MPs simply seek to amplify what divides them."

“We must try to reach out to each other, to try and find common ground if we are to heal the profound divisions,” he urged.

That would require a return to traditional British politics, in which parties of both left and right have generally sought to govern from the center. More recently, however, a clear ideological split has seen the Conservative Party espouse right-wing English nationalism and the Labour Party move further to the left than it has been for decades.

“There's a great big gap in the middle,” says Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “That gap will be filled – nature abhors a vacuum – but you need someone charismatic in the center who brings people together,” someone like new French President Emmanuel Macron.

There is no obvious Macron lookalike on the British political scene at the moment, he acknowledges. “There will be a healing,” he predicts. “It will just take a bit of time.”

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