Theresa May is likely to emerge from her snap general election with carte blanche to choose the Brexit path she wants. That’s why it is vital she tells voters what her plan is.
Electoral contests are never certain. So one can’t rule out an upset. But May has the fortune to be facing an extraordinarily weak leader of the opposition in Jeremy Corbyn. The latest ICM/Guardian opinion poll shows her Tories 18 percentage points ahead of Labour. Betting odds imply she has a 75% chance of winning an overall majority.
So the big question in this election is what sort of Brexit the prime minister wants. Is she really prepared to crash out of the EU with no deal, as she threatened in her Lancaster House speech? Or does she want a “deep and special” relationship with the EU, as she said in her letter triggering Article 50 and reiterated on the steps of 10 Downing Street today? And, if so, what compromises is she prepared to make to get that?
May says she has abandoned her promise not to call a snap election so she can be stronger in the Brexit negotiations with the EU. This is disingenuous. It’s hard to see why the Germans or French should give Britain any better deal if May had a fat majority in the House of Commons.
No, this snap election is about strengthening May’s position in parliament, particularly within her own party. Her small majority has made her vulnerable to pressure from extreme Brexiters and, to a much lesser extent, moderate pro-Europeans. If she emerges on June 9 with a bigger majority, she will be able to choose the type of Brexit that she thinks best. All the more reason why May must tell the electorate what she wants.
Some things, of course, are clear. We are leaving the single market and the customs union – so what used to be called a soft Brexit is off the table. But since May triggered Article 50, there have been signs that she is softening her position, presumably as she realises how crashing out with no deal would damage the economy, the union with Scotland, the fight against terrorism and Britain’s influence in the world. She has, for example, ducked the question of whether free movement of people might continue during a transition period after we quit the EU but before we can agree a new trade deal.
It is possible to conclude that the prime minister is now angling for a deep free trade agreement plus lots of cooperation on non-economic matters like security and foreign policy, loosely modelled on the deal Ukraine has with the EU. Such an arrangement would involve paying a big one-off divorce settlement as well ongoing annual sums to access EU science programmes and the like. We’d also have to follow many of the EU’s rules without much of a say in drafting them. Though absolute free movement would go, we might end up with an immigration policy that isn’t so different from what we now have – not just because that would be part of our new “deep and special partnership”, but because we need EU migrants to staff our industries and vital services such as the NHS.
Such an arrangement would be vastly inferior to staying in the EU. Leaving the club’s top table would involve a big loss of control, not taking control. Some people who backed Leave might wonder what’s the point of leaving if this is what Brexit means. On the other hand, it would certainly be better than crashing out.
But is this what the prime minister wants? Or is she still considering burning our bridges? There have been so many contradictory statements and smoke signals that we just don’t know. When calling the election, though, she did say: ”Let everybody put forward their proposals for Brexit.” Let us hope May is true to her words and doesn’t eat them, as she did her promise about no snap election.
Edited by Luke Lythgoe