Four Ways the General Election Result Could Impact Brexit

  • Failure by May to win large majority will shake up Brexit
  • Brexit could harden or could soften under next government

Finland's Stubb Says Negotiating Hand of U.K. Is Weaker

The U.K.’s approach to leaving the European Union ran into fresh turbulence as Prime Minister Theresa May’s bid to win a stronger hand for the looming negotiations backfired.

With the result of Thursday’s general election still hours from being known, it’s already clear that May’s Conservative Party failed to win the commanding victory that she sought and might well be on course to lose its narrow parliamentary majority.

It means Brexit negotiations, which are set to begin the week after next, are almost certain to be delayed. And the shock result could end up reshaping Brexit even as the clock keeps ticking to end-March 2019, when the U.K. is set to leave the bloc.

Here are four potential scenarios:

The Brexiteers Bite Back

One reason May called an early election was to enlarge the Tory majority so that she had a buffer against the 60 or so Conservative lawmakers most passionate about Brexit and who remember she didn’t vote for it.

Theresa May

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Had she achieved her goal, she would have had more political space to cut deals with the the EU over topics such as the financial settlement and the remit of the European Court of Justice in return for securing a new trade deal and an agreed transition to it.

If the Tories cling on to power, the Brexit hardliners could still hold the balance of power under May or her successor, reducing the room to make concessions and risking a breakdown in the negotiations that ends with Britain crashing out of the bloc.

The Rise of the Remainers

The Conservatives stay the party of government, but a small margin of victory means the election result forces them to rethink their Brexit strategy.

Rather than ruling out membership of the single market for goods and services as May did to regain control over immigration, the approach to Brexit is softened.

Safeguarding trade becomes the target and the U.K. ends up pursuing a Norway-style model in which it gives ground on immigration to secure tariff-free commerce. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth Clarke, who rebelled against May over Brexit, already told the BBC that a "deeper debate" is needed in Parliament.

This may require a different prime minister. Potential candidates could include Home Secretary Amber Rudd or even pro-Brexit Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who may have the charm to pull it off.

The need for more time to craft a softer Brexit might require the other 27 EU members to delay Britain’s departure beyond March 2019.

Labour Gains

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn defies the forecasts and his critics to win power either as a minority government or at the helm of a coalition.

Jeremy Corbyn on stage at the Sobell Leisure Centre on June 9.

Photographer: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Keir Starmer is charged with negotiating Brexit and immediately rips up May’s plans. In their place he signs up to a soft Brexit, prioritizing membership of the single market and customs union.

The new government also reverses May’s view that “no deal is better than a bad deal” and the conciliatory approach prompts the EU to delay the leaving date.

Nothing Changes

May remains in 10 Downing Street and pursues the Brexit she campaigned for. She said in the early hours of Thursday that “this country needs a period of stability.”

This would require her juggling to keep different factions of her party on side and leaves her at constant risk of alliance-building by opponents aimed at softening her plan.

The EU grants no extension to the negotiations and tries to exert leverage over a weakened May to secure a better deal for the continent.

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