Comment: Time to fasten seatbelts

Comment: Time to fasten seatbelts

If you thought Britain was ill-prepared for Brexit, it certainly is now, says Ian Taylor

Britain returned to the reality of Brexit on Friday following a general election few appeared to want, but which has transformed the political outlook.

Prime Minister Theresa May was defeated in her aim of enhancing her majority ahead of Brexit negotiations, or as the headline of the Tory and Brexit-supporting Daily Telegraph put it: “Britain votes for chaos.”

The Conservatives will return to government, but will not command an overall majority. The party’s 318 seats leave it eight short and requiring the support of Northern Ireland’s Unionists, the DUP.

This will come at a price but can largely be relied upon – the Tories are not called the Conservative and Unionist Party for nothing.

However it is cut, the result was a resounding defeat for May and for her vision of Brexit after she had insisted: “Every vote will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain.”

Former chancellor George Osborne, now editor of the London Evening Standard noted: “Theresa May is probably going to be the shortest serving prime minister in our history. A hard Brexit went in the rubbish bin tonight.”

The government will be unstable and prone to defeat at any time. A fresh election is now likely, as is a change of prime minister without one, although Tory contenders to replace May are not obvious.

May’s failure and brittleness under pressure was a key feature of the election.

In the words of Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie: “May became the first party leader in history to rip up their manifesto within four days of it launch. Her mantra of ‘strong and stable’ was about the worst slogan she could have chosen.”

The Remain supporting Liberal-Democrats, who staked all on a demand for a second referendum, got almost nowhere and their former leader and ex-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg lost his seat.

The Brexit obsessed anti-immigration Ukip were trounced everywhere and collapsed, and support for the Scottish National Party (SNP) fell away.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn proved a good campaigner with popular appeal despite being the most vilified UK opposition leader of modern times – repeatedly condemned not just by Tory-supporting media outlets but by Labour’s own supporters in the media.

Corbyn cannot command a majority among his own MPs. As recently as four weeks ago there was open speculation that more than 100 Labour MPs could desert Labour following the resounding defeat for Corbyn that was expected.

What happened? Crucially, Corbyn’s policy promises – re-nationalisation, an end to austerity, public spending – gelled with significant numbers of people especially the young.

In remarks to the conference of the UK Guild of Travel Management Companies (GTMC) three days before the election, Montgomerie shed some light on why.

He noted survey results suggesting the extent of UK public support for Corbyn-style policies:

56% support for universal free school meals
58% support for rail renationalisation
61% support for a minimum wage of £10 an hour
62% support for a rise in the top rate of tax
62% support for rent controls
64% support for abolition of zero-hour contracts

Montgomerie noted: “Margaret Thatcher did not turn Britain into an economically liberal, free-market paradise.”

Where does all this leave the Brexit process? Montgomerie, a prominent advocate for Brexit who publically resigned from the Tory Party in protest at former prime minister David Cameron’s pre-referendum deal with the EU, was sharply critical of May on Europe.

He said: “I regret May has not made a big speech to declare we still love Europe. The EU thinks the rhetoric of some of our newspapers and of Nigel Farage has affected all of us. It could all be a lot easier if May had created a better atmosphere.”

This echoes the view of fellow political commentator Peter Foster, Brussels editor of the Tory and Brexit-supporting Daily Telegraph, who told Travel Weekly last month: “May drives the other [European] leaders mad even in private conversations, saying nothing more than platitudes.

“It has created suspicion and animosity. There is real frustration and anger [and] genuine animosity on both sides.”

Now the leader of Britain in the negotiations will be both weak and maddening.

Just before the election, the Financial Times noted in a report from Brussels: “EU negotiators are bracing themselves for a ‘big crisis’ over Brexit soon after the UK election, including a possible British walkout as early as the summer or autumn.”

That appears much less likely now. A first round of formal negotiations is planned for June 19, with an EU summit due at the end of that week. But the start date already appears in doubt.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier promised to send position papers on citizens’ rights and the financial terms of Britain’s departure “very quickly” after the election.

The EU wants these issues addressed before commencing talks on anything else.

The Financial Times noted: “London has yet to respond in kind, or assign responsibilities for the negotiations. That has reinforced a sense that Britain is ill-prepared.”

It certainly is now.

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