It was meant to be the “Brexit election”. It turned out for the most part, it was fought on many other issues besides.
It was meant to be the election that handed Theresa May a huge Brexit mandate that would offer her stability through the stormy seas ahead. It hasn’t.
As a result of today’s hung parliament result, there’s now a complete lack of clarity surrounding what sort of Brexit the UK wants, and how long it will have to get it.
The outcome will surely have left Brussels, Paris and Berlin completely shocked, but official words of concern or surprise have yet to emerge from EU corridors.
The first Brexit negotiations, after the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March, begin in just 11 days time. They will decide how often both sides will meet and what will be discussed, carving out a timetable for the next prime minister that will require compromise, great persistence and the backing of the British public.
That timetable could soon be out of the window if a government isn’t formed soon. Yes, the UK does have the option of extending talks, but that would require the agreement of the 27 other EU nations that by and large just want the job done.
In this hugely volatile and ultimately unpredictable seven weeks of campaigning, we have learnt nothing new about the parties’ approach to Brexit. Theresa May laid out her shape of Brexit in her Lancaster Speech a whole six months ago (out of the single market to control migration and by default out of the customs union) back in January, in a 12-point plan – that famed “red, white and blue Brexit”.
The reality is that isn’t anywhere near as simple as “Brexit means Brexit”.
Aside from the prospect of walking away from the table without a deal, and the calamitous cliff-edge consequences that that would bring about, Mrs May has delivered nothing more than soundbites, superficiality and painting the EU as the scapegoat.
Across the political spectrum, Jeremy Corbyn has committed his party to a “jobs-first Brexit”, securing the rights of EU citizens in the initial stages of talks, a Brexit that protects workers’ rights and prevents the UK being “a bargain basement on the shores of Europe”, in the words of the Labour leader. In an interview this morning, he said he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and deliver that vision in government.
The next British prime minister will have to face a fiercely united, emboldened European Union, buoyed by a decisive victory in France for president Emmanuel Macron against the tide of populism and nationalism, and in Germany, the confident figure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who looks as if she’ll comfortably secure a fourth term in September.
It’s precisely where British politics is out of step with the rest of Europe. Mr Macron faced a presidential election that Mrs May wished she’d had all along – one that she fought as if she were competing in – and in Germany, Merkel is steering the ship of a grand coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties that no-one in British politics would want to put their name to.
The EU-27, as they’re known without the UK, are singing from the same hymn sheet – an idea that would hardly seem possible just a few years ago amid economic chaos and the migrant crisis. Brussels is unequivocal about its transparent approach to Brexit; gone is the temptation of doing country-by-country back-door deals and vicious sniping.
In Brussels, it’s the orderly sort of Brexit preparation that’s a mirror image of the political chaos to come in the next few days in Westminster, as parties thrash out coalition negotiations, with all manner of Brexit permutations now possible – to the confusion of Brussels.
It’s also dependant on, assuming Theresa May steps down, who from the Remain or Leave camps, becomes the next Tory leader. From hard-line Boris Johnson to pragmatic Philip Hammond, the extremes are fields apart.
Ultimately, it is in the interest of both sides to have orderly Brexit negotiations, so it would seem sensible for them to begin only when the UK is ready and the dust is settled on a coalition pact or cross-party agreement – a point which chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier intimated in a tweet.
Yes, the EU wants a quick deal, but one based on fairness – not at the expense of weak UK leadership that leaves both sides ultimately reeling.