As the country goes to the polls, let’s pause to consider what potential election results might mean for the Great Repeal Bill and the Brexit process in general.
Despite recent polls, a Conservative majority still seems most likely. The GRB is Conservative policy, and so a Tory majority will see the GRB introduced in the next Queen’s Speech. The Conservative’s Brexit policy is to leave the single market and customs union, and seek a new ‘deep and special partnership’ and ‘free trade agreement on the best possible terms’ with the EU. They maintain that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK’. However, it is not clear what free trade terms they are seeking or how they can achieve a free trade agreement and restrict free movement in order to control immigration, without ‘cherry picking’ elements of the single market (which the EU is against).
An increased Tory majority is likely to be interpreted as an endorsement of the Government’s decision to pursue a hard Brexit, and may push the Prime Minister to ‘play hardball’ with the EU, particularly on the withdrawal agreement and the divorce bill. However, some have suggested that a very large Conservative majority would free the Prime Minister’s hand, allowing her (remember, a quiet Remainer) to make concessions in the EU negotiations which might not play well to the ‘hard Brexit’ wing of the Tory party (perhaps retaining free movement during a transition period or retaining membership of EU regulatory bodies in particular sectors). A large Tory majority might therefore result in a ‘softer’ Brexit.
A reduced Tory majority would undermine the Prime Minister domestically: with the benefit of hindsight, an unsuccessful election campaign would be described as lacklustre, even chaotic, her ‘strong and stable’ mantra undermined by a no-show in the leader’s TV debates and policy u-turns. Her days may be numbered. It could also be interpreted as a rejection of ‘hard Brexit’ – particularly if the Liberal Democrat, SNP or Green Party vote share increases (although the converse would perhaps be true if UKIP’s vote share sustains/increases) The GRB would still be introduced, but provisions granting power to Government to ‘correct’ UK law and ‘give effect to the withdrawal negotiations’ by SI may prove more difficult to get through Parliament. The Opposition may feel emboldened to attack the Government on the loss of individual and workers’ rights.
These problems would be exacerbated in a hung Parliament. The Conservatives would probably remain the largest party, although it seems highly unlikely Theresa May would survive as leader (particularly given the election campaign focussed so much on her personal strengths). Another Tory leadership campaign would be an unwelcome distraction from, and potentially delay, the Brexit negotiations.
In a hung Parliament, the Tories could probably only rely on support from UKIP and Northern Ireland’s DUP and UUP. The latter may have its own Brexit implications: the Northern Irish border is already an identified priority in the Brexit negotiations and, while all NI parties support some form of special treatment for NI, they differ as to the details (which, as so often with Northern Ireland’s intractable politics, is where the devil lies). The GRB debates might have a greater focus on the shape of the new UK ‘internal market’, and on related spheres like agriculture, fisheries and the practicalities of customs and excise. Concessions might have to be made on the devolution settlements and on Westminster ‘matching’ lost EU regional development funding (particularly if the SNP maintain, and Plaid Cymru increase, their vote share).
An outright Labour win would see the end of the GRB. Labour have pledged to scrap the Brexit White Paper and replace it with a fresh set of negotiating priorities with an ‘emphasis on the single market and customs union’, i.e. a very soft Brexit, and have rejected the idea that ‘no deal’ with the EU is a viable option. The EU is likely to welcome this more conciliatory approach, and has said it will give a new Labour Government time. Domestically, Labour would replace the proposed GRB with an ‘EU Rights and Protections Bill’ that would ensure no change to workers’ rights or environmental protections, and would immediately guarantee rights of EU citizens living in Britain (although it’s not clear how this is consistent with a commitment to reduce immigration).
A Labour Government with a small majority could probably survive with the domestic support of the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cyrmu, Northern Ireland’s SDLP and Alliance parties, and the Greens (if only to sustain the Labour Government and prevent another election which might see a Conservative win). However, each would have its own ‘wish list’: the Lib Dems, Green Party and Alliance would press for a second referendum on the final Brexit deal (with the option to remain in the EU on the ballot paper); the SDLP and Plaid Cyrmu want matched EU funding; the Greens the retention of EU-derived environmental protections.
A Labour minority Government may need the support of the SNP (although a formal coalition has been ruled out). In return, the SNP could be given a role in the Brexit negotiations – this may be a relatively straightforward matter as the SNP also support remaining in the single market and retaining the rights and protections currently safeguarded by EU membership (although friction may arise in respect of the fishing industry). Domestically, of course, it would be more difficult – the SNP want a second Scottish independence referendum, which Labour oppose.
Let’s see what the night brings!