In April, Prime Minister Theresa May staked her political future on holding early elections. The U.K. was not due to vote until 2020, but May, whose Conservatives enjoyed a 21-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, liked her chances. The Tories had a 17-seat working majority in Parliament, a majority May hoped to increase in the elections so she could have a stronger mandate to negotiate with the European Union on the nature of Brexit.
To be clear, Britons votes overwhelmingly to leave the EU (52 percent to 48 percent), but the issue remains a contentious one in the U.K.—with large majorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and major British cities like London voting to remain the bloc.
“If we don’t hold a general election now,” May said in April, “their political game-playing will continue and the negotiations with the European Union will reach their most difficult stage in the run-up to the next general election” in 2020.
The exit poll results are unclear about who will form the next government. If it’s May, and she’ll have to form a coalition, it’s unclear she can forge the kind of strong position she wanted to with the EU when she promised to be “a bloody difficult woman” during Brexit talks. If it’s Corbyn, and he’ll need support, too, most likely from the pro-EU Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats, who are also pro-EU, then he’s unlikely to take a hard stance over the nature of the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU—a position that’s likely to give EU negotiators a strong hand. Corbyn’s own position on Brexit has been squishy—as has May’s.
The U.K. and the EU are divided over a host of issues, not least of which is the amount of money the bloc wants the U.K. to pay as part of a divorce bill before any deal on a future relationship is struck. Then there is the question of the rights of EU nationals living in the U.K. and U.K. expatriates following the separation. Also, as I’ve previously written:
Much of the discussions so far have centered on whether it’ll be a “soft” Brexit or a “hard” Brexit. A “soft” Brexit would allow the U.K.’s relationship with the EU to remain mostly unchanged: in other words, with the U.K. having access to the single market, and with the free movement of EU citizens. A “hard” Brexit, on the other hand, would see the U.K. negotiators refusing to compromise on the unrestricted movement of EU citizens, thereby losing access to the single market. In reality, since immigration is one of the reasons Brexit occurred, a final settlement is likely to fall somewhere in between a “soft” and “hard” Brexit.
These and other issues will be discussed when Brexit talks formally begin on June 19.