Tory landslide won’t raise risk of crashing out

by Nick Kent | 08.05.2017

When the general election was called many thought that Theresa May’s decision was a clever gamble. An increased majority in the Commons would enable her to negotiate a softer Brexit because she wouldn’t be hostage to militant Tory Brexiters.

This argument is now in retreat. My colleague Hugo Dixon, for example, has written: “If the Tories get a landslide, parliament will rubber-stamp whatever Theresa May wants on Brexit….The prime minister will even be able to crash out without a deal.”

This is a simplistic view that underestimates the forces pushing May towards a softer exit from the EU. In her speech last Wednesday, with its astonishing claim of Brussels’ interference in the election, the prime minister issued the following warning:

“While there is enormous opportunity for Britain as we leave the European Union, if we do not get this right, the consequences will be serious. And they will be felt by ordinary, working people across the country. This Brexit negotiation is central to everything. If we don’t get the negotiation right, your economic security and prosperity will be put at risk and the opportunities you seek for your families will simply not happen”.

This passage followed on from her statement that “we want a deal. We want a deep and special partnership with the European Union. And we want the EU to succeed”.

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    Those are not the words of someone planning to take the UK out of the EU without agreement. May has clearly decided her duty lies in making a reality of Brexit. But she knows that walking away from the EU would not just have severe economic consequences; it would split her government too.

    No prime minister is truly master of their own destiny, as Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher both found out. They were forced from office by their own parties less than three years after winning landslide victories. And May will have to work with a Cabinet and a parliamentary party containing powerful Remainer voices.

    Every prime minister knows that a good relationship between No 10 and No 11 is the bond that holds the government together. If there is one minister more cautious than May, it is Philip Hammond. The Treasury is acutely conscious of the economic risks of crashing out of the EU.  Even if there were not a run on the pound or the collapse of the government, queues of lorries either side of the Channel unable to get through customs and empty shelves and higher prices in the supermarkets – we import over 60% of our food, a quarter of it from the EU – would be difficult enough. Powerful voices in business are now making this argument.

    The risk of a hard Brexit will remain whatever the election’s result because this is a difficult negotiation and, as we have seen in the last week, there is room for misunderstanding on both sides. But a big Tory win does not make it inevitable or even more likely.

    Edited by Hugo Dixon