“We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end,” tweeted Donald Tusk, former Polish prime minister and now president of the European Council.
He doesn’t know when the talks will start because even now, a year after Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May doesn’t know what her negotiating position is.
She thought she knew. It was going to be a “hard Brexit” where Britain left both the European Union’s “internal market” (complete free trade between the half-billion people in the EU’s 28 members) and the customs union (the same external tariffs against everybody else). “Free movement” would also end (to limit immigration from EU countries), and Britain would flourish all alone thanks to its genius for free trade. Good luck with that.
But then May called a needless election to get a bigger majority in parliament – to “strengthen her hand” in the negotiations with the EU that are scheduled to begin Monday, or so she said. Instead, after a botched campaign focused entirely on May, the Conservative Party lost its majority in the June 8 election.
Now she is a zombie prime minister: “Dead woman walking,” one senior Conservative called her. Yet the Conservative Party can’t dump her yet because she is in the midst of talks with the small Democratic Unionist Party (exclusively Northern Irish) to get enough votes in parliament to keep the government in power.
Even if May succeeds, “hard Brexit” is dead. To get the support of the 11 DUP members of parliament – even to retain the support of the 13 MPs of the Scottish Conservative Party – she will have to agree to a much softer Brexit. That would certainly include a customs union, and maybe also continued membership of the internal market.
That may tear the Conservative Party apart, as the hard-line Brexiters in the party will fight against it tooth and nail. May’s Brexit Minister, David Davis, has already warned that next week’s start to the talks with the EU may have to be postponed. But the deadline for an agreement is only eighteen months away, in practice, and the negotiations will be extremely complex. No wonder Donald Tusk is losing patience.
The Brexit referendum was originally promised in 2013 by May’s predecessor, David Cameron, in order to prevent a split in the Conservative Party. May’s devotion to Brexit today is still mainly aimed at avoiding that split, but the rest of the country has moved on.
If the referendum were held again today, it would almost certainly result in a victory for the Remainers, not the Leavers. The problem is that both main parties include large numbers of Leave voters.
They are a bigger proportion of the Conservative Party, although around half of the Conservative MPs are still secretly anti-Brexit. Jeremy Corbin’s Labour Party is equally divided: at least a third of Labour’s voters were Leavers.
Corbin would not have come so near to displacing the Tories if he had not maintained his ambiguous stance on Brexit in the recent election. Many of the traditional Labour voters who came back to the Labour Party this time were former supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party. They had been made homeless by the collapse of that party, but they are still Leavers.
So neither party is going to propose a second referendum now. To do so would be to lose many of their pro-Leave voters, and probably to lose the new election that is likely to be called before the end of the year. Yet the outcome of last week’s election does open up a possible path to a new referendum.
If the Conservative Party shreds itself over who is to replace Theresa May, or if either the DUP or the pro-Remain Scottish Conservatives withdraw their support, there will have to be another election.
Labour could win that election, but only if Corbyn can convince the Leavers in his party that he will try very hard to make a “soft Brexit” work. At the same time, he must persuade all the students and other young people who voted for the first time this month (and almost all voted Labour) that he will put the results of the negotiations with the EU to a second referendum, even though he cannot promise that publicly now.
It’s a fine line to walk, and Corbyn is genuinely ambivalent about the EU. Nevertheless, the final result could be either an acceptably soft and amicable Brexit, (leaving Britain in a close relationship with the EU, like Switzerland or Norway) – or an abandonment of the whole Brexit project after a second referendum. But it will leave deep scars for a generation whichever way it comes out.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.