As soon as Theresa May announced an early general election, just weeks after triggering Article 50, the vote was being dubbed the “Brexit election”. May is likely to campaign on a strategy of “vote Conservative for my vision of Brexit”. While there are divisions in the Conservative party about what Brexit means, there are greater divisions about what it means within the Labour party. The opposition begins the campaign on the back foot.
But what does this election mean for the actual Brexit process? There are several important implications.
Will this election interrupt Article 50 talks?
When May triggered Article 50 in March, she opened the two-year negotiating window for Brexit negotiations, so it might look like taking six weeks out to conduct a general election would be risky, as it will eat into the time available to deal with the EU. However, the election will not result in any major delay in Article 50 negotiations. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, the balance of power is very much with the remaining members of the EU. They are scheduled to hold a summit on April 29 to confirm their negotiating brief and the schedule for talks between the EU and the UK. The European Council also needs to finalise the structure of the negotiations - and that won’t happen until June 22. It’s unlikely that negotiations will even begin until the autumn when the elections in France and Germany have been held.
Could it delay Brexit?
The UK needs to get its house in order to prepare for Brexit. Civil servants are already working round the clock to fill the gaps that the UK’s departure from the EU will create. That includes the great repeal bill, which brings all EU laws onto the UK statute books so that they can be reviewed and potentially changed after Brexit. During the election the UK will enter into purdah, which limits the amount of work civil servants can do during the campaign period. That will inhibit much of the day-to-day business of government, as well as the level of scrutiny over the legislative process, which certainly piles on the pressure for anyone hoping to be ready for Brexit.
The government has already discussed an implementation phase for Brexit, during which new systems for immigration and customs will gradually be introduced. Much of the work required to get the UK ready for Brexit will not be completed by April 2019 when the two-year Article 50 negotiating window closes. The April 2019 deadline was one year before the scheduled 2020 general election, which would have placed pressure on the Conservatives to deliver a completed Brexit. The next general election will now take place in 2022, giving the potential implementation phase more breathing space.
Will May’s negotiating position be strengthened?
In calling this early election, May is seeking a mandate for her Brexit plans. She knows that an unencumbered mandate will mark her out as a strong negotiator in negotiations with the EU.
She should use this election and manifesto process to set out a clearer vision of what Brexit will mean. Further clarification on what the UK economy will look like outside the EU is an important question, as is what she thinks the role of the European Court of Justice will be in the UK’s dealing with the EU in the future.
If the Conservatives win a majority – and a mandate – having further explained what a post-Brexit UK will look like, it will be harder for the EU27 to extract compromises on specific issues. However, by being specific on key policy issues during the election the prime minister may find herself unable to compromise when she needs to during the negotiation process. May must tread a delicate line in her quest for a clear mandate. Being somewhat opaque about Brexit may well be par for the course.
All this means that while the 2017 general election might be seen as the Brexit election, it won’t actually provide much clarification on Brexit. That said, if 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the current political climate is volatile, predictions can be wrong and that there is no such thing as a political certainty.