When UK Prime Minister triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, kick-starting the formal process of Brexit, back in March, there was a sense that negotiations would start with clarity on both sides, as both her government and Brussels were gradually beginning to reveal their positions on thorny issues including access to the Single Market and migration.
Then, the prime minister had what seemed to be a promising idea: why not call for an early election at home and strengthen her Tory Party’s grip on power in Westminster, allowing to go to Brussels with a stronger mandate? After all, the Prime Minister had not been formally elected — she was appointed after a leadership contest in which all the other candidates dropped out, following David Cameron’s resignation after his defeat in the Brexit referendum — and the apparent weakness of the political opposition appeared to offer the prospect of a large victory.
However, it is precisely this sense of certainty that eventually played against her. May refused to participate in TV debates, and seemed to take pride in what many considered to be her aloofness. When a series of terrorist attacks hit the country, May was in the first line for criticism, as the leader of the country and as a former Home Secretary who reduced the number of police officers by 20% between 2010 and 2016.
On June 8, the British electorate decided to punish her. The Tory party won 318 seats and remained the largest political force, but fell short of the 326 seats necessary to form an outright majority in the British Parliament – and of the 330 seats the party owned before the election. The Labour Party, on the other hand, jumped from 230 to 262 seats. As the only party that suggested it would back-track from Brexit and call for a second referendum, the Liberal Democrats won 12 seats (up from 8 seats in 2015). North of the border, the Scottish National Party, led by Nicola Sturgeon, did not manage to repeat its shock 2015 result, when it managed to win 54 of Scotland’s 56 seats. Instead, it lost 19 seats, putting Sturgeon’s calls for a second Scottish independence referendum on hold for the time being.
Theresa May has asked the Queen for her permission to form a government, bolstered by the far-right DUP’s 10 seats — cementing a long-standing gentleman’s agreement with the Northern Irish unionist party, which is itself no stranger to controversies. However, she has the slimmest of majorities, and her future, both at home and in Brussels, is far from assured.
The prospect of a rematch should not be ruled out. Depending on how smoothly Theresa May’s new coalition runs, this could take place as early as August. Therefore, a main conclusion from this poll is the political uncertainty that it creates.
With such uncertainty, Brexit negotiations — initially scheduled to start on June 19 — are likely to be rocky. The first reaction in Brussels was to rejoice over May’s defeat considering her plan to leave the single market and to press ahead with cuts to immigration — a vision labeled “hard Brexit”. Her slogan, “No deal is better than a bad deal” was also seen as a direct provocation and a worrisome prospect given EU countries’ strong reliance on cross-Channel trade. Eurocrats in the European Commission now hope that she will be forced to compromise.
But what the results reveal actually give no reason for Eurocrats to be cheerful. The vote was the first opportunity for British citizens to express their view on what kind of Brexit they wanted their government to negotiate. Although the Labour Party’s vision for exiting the EU can be considered softer since it remains ambiguous on access to the Single Market and Customs Union, the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn also advocates for a deep break with the EU by stopping freedom of movement — one of the fundamental freedoms that EU citizenship guarantees, and a red line for Brussels.
The British economy is expected to take a hit due to the inconclusive election results — bad news for what is already the slowest growing G7 economy so far this year. Inward investment will continue to drop, and inflation is already at a three-year high and will is likely to keep rising, which will have a direct negative effect on real wages.
Theresa May has clung on to power — just. Nobody’s sure quite how long she will last, or what government, based on a razor-thin majority, will be able to achieve. Nor is there any certainty as to what such a damaged government will be able to bring to the table in Brussels on June 19. But one thing is sure: the election itself will be remembered as one of the worst political gambles of the British modern political history. Right now, Theresa May is neither strong nor stable.