The United Kingdom Faces a Rising Degree of Difficulty

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For the second year running, a British Prime Minister has taken an electoral gamble that has backfired. We are left with more questions than answers: what will British leadership look like in six weeks or six months’ time? Do voters prefer a so-called “Soft Brexit” or a “Hard Brexit”? Will negotiations with the European Union (EU) start on time, and end on time? With the U.K. economy faltering, resolution on these fronts must come quickly.

When the election results came out last Thursday, Prime Minister Theresa May’s position looked untenable. But potential challengers have kept their knives sheathed. After securing the backing of Tory backbenchers (the 1922 Committee) in a highly choreographed meeting, it looks like she may survive for the time being.

This outcome seems to reflect the reality that Brexit has made the Prime Minister’s job a poisoned chalice. Prospective aspirants to 10 Downing Street are letting the incumbent take the blame for Brexit’s inevitable economic damage (or an inability to regain sovereignty from Europe), and living to fight another day. Predicting British politics these days is a fool’s errand, but the prospect of May surviving at least until 2019 (when the United Kingdom leaves the EU) is not as outlandish as it appeared last week.

The new make-up of Westminster Palace is not without silver linings. Tory gains in Scotland have taken the threat of another Scottish independence referendum off the table. Further, a minority Tory government reliant on the support of Irish Democratic Unionist Party is expected to be a more level headed negotiator with the European Union. Securing a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would now be a matter of political survival for the government. This, along with the reality check delivered by the voters, should end the bravado of a “no-deal” Brexit.

Some observers are now expecting a softer outcome, but that will be an exceptionally challenging outcome to reach. Retaining the benefits of membership in the single market inevitably means that the United Kingdom would continue to allow free movement of people with the EU and that the EU would retain a heavy hand in setting U.K. regulations. This not only makes leaving the EU pointless, but would be politically impossible to sell since the Brexit referendum was won on concerns over immigration and sovereignty.

With negotiations soon to get underway, the focus will be on agreeing to the terms of exit from the EU, securing a transition agreement for the United Kingdom and establishing the United Kingdom’s future trading status with the remaining EU members. Time is of the essence here — not only does everything need to be negotiated by March 2019, but it also has to be ratified by 27 parliaments.

The first phase of negotiations will aim to reach a decision on immigrant rights and resolve the United Kingdom’s obligations to the EU budget as it makes its transition (the so-called Brexit bill). While the British government has been defiant on the Brexit bill, and noncommittal on the rights of EU citizens in the United Kingdom, London would gain both time and goodwill for its post-Brexit demands if it displays generosity here.