It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Theresa May called the general election calling for a mandate for her Brexit vision. In her own words:
“Our opponents believe because the government’s majority is so small, that our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course. They are wrong. They underestimate our determination to get the job done and I am not prepared to let them endanger the security of millions of working people across the country. Because what they are doing jeopardises the work we must do to prepare for Brexit at home and it weakens the government’s negotiating position in Europe.
If we do not hold a general election now 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 scheduled election. Division in Westminster will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country. So we need a general election and we need one now, because we have at this moment a one-off chance to get this done while the European Union agrees its negotiating position and before the detailed talks begin.”
The Conservatives no longer have a small majority. They no longer have a majority at all. Britain has increased division at Westminster, the political game-playing will mushroom and all the while negotiations with the European Union are going to become more difficult.
Yet Theresa May’s entire pitch was wrong. Perhaps that was one reason why she lost. A small majority did not harm her ability to negotiate and a large majority would not have helped her, at least so far as the quality of the deal was concerned. Having no majority may actually improve the deal that Britain secures.
How so? Imagine that Theresa May had secured a majority of 200. She would have utterly dominated the domestic political scene: half Boadicea, half Wonderwoman. Dissent would have been futile. The saboteurs would have been well and truly crushed. From the EU’s viewpoint, that would have been an easy negotiation. Once the bloody difficult woman had been squared, the deal would have been cast. So all the EU had to do would be to make an offer that met their objectives and dare Theresa May to walk away from it. She would have no cover for rejecting the offer, with all the serious disruption that would entail. She would be making a huge call and the public would rightly treat it as her decision. Whether or not Theresa May would actually accept the terms offered, the EU would expect her to do so.
Note that the UK is unable to adopt this tactic with the EU for the very good reason that there is no single decision-maker. Michel Barnier, Jean-Claude Juncker, Angela Merkel, the European Parliament and the Walloon Parliament are just some of the cast of hundreds who will have their say. The EU’s negotiators will reasonably point to the need to keep all of the decision-makers with their competing agendas on side. In all likelihood, some of the decision-makers will be inclined to put a spoke in the wheel anyway, feeling that they have been paid insufficient regard to.
Indeed, this multiplicity of competing interests on the EU side is one major reason why the EU would have been pushing to offer Britain a minimally acceptable deal: it makes it all so much easier. Why put your energies into cracking multiple nuts if you only need to crack one?
Now note the difference when Britain has a hung Parliament. Theresa May is not dominant even around her own Cabinet table. Pluralism reigns. Her government will need to keep on board a constantly-shifting coalition of interests inside her party and beyond.
And, most importantly, the EU’s negotiators will know that. They cannot simply lay down a deal for Theresa May to sign up to because they know that she cannot simply sign any deal and get it through Parliament. If they want a deal, they’re going to need to put a deal to the British negotiating side that the British Government will have a chance of getting through the House of Commons.
The EU’s institutional negotiating advantage that comes from its nature has been considerably reduced by the election result. The two sides now have near-parity of incoherence.
This undoubtedly makes the negotiations much harder work for the British side: no one likes having to take account of the views of others. But it potentially will make for a better deal for Britain (though not necessarily for the Conservative party).
There’s always a catch. On this occasion, it’s obvious. By narrowing the eye of the needle that the negotiators need to thread, the risk that they will fail is increased. If both sides are having to square off lots of different interests among keenly self-important interest groups, the risk is greatly increased that a deal cannot be reached or that the deal agreed by negotiators is scuppered by someone who feels that they have been paid insufficient regard to – or simply someone creating devilment. So, fingers crossed.