One of the lines that Theresa May (and her defenders in the UK press) keep repeating is that she needs a greater majority in the General Election on 8th June to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations. As I see it (and explain in more detail here) the rest of the EU does not actually really care about that – all of May’s counterparts at the European Council table have won elections too. Big deal. And the UK will be a complex partner in Brexit negotiations anyway.
But what about the impact of a big majority for May on the UK side of the negotiations?
Firstly everything that is said about Brexit between now and 8th June from Conservative politicians is largely posturing. It is the interests of Tory politicians to sound tough as they think that resonates with their electorate and draws more support from UKIP.
The interesting issue will actually be what they all do, and indeed who does it, after the election.
As the months have rolled on since May’s government was first formed last summer, a pattern has emerged among the three Brexiteers. Johnson seems to not know his own mind, is increasingly a laughing stock (there are guffaws and open ridicule whenever his name is mentioned in political events in Berlin – really), and also seems to have kept himself largely out of the Brexit detail. He pops up on TV from time to time to say something ridiculous, but that’s about it. Fox seems to have disappeared without trace. And so that leaves us with Davis – the Minister for Brexit after all – with the future of the process in his hands.
That then leads us to the major decision for May (and one dependent on her majority) immediately after 8th June: does she keep Davis in the Brexit job after the election, or does she sack him?
May’s team could – rightly – conclude that Davis has not adequately grasped the detail of Brexit in his 10 months in the job, and has done none of the bridge-building work for the negotiations to come, and hence is dispensable. May would of course then need a replacement for Davis – it seems that Hammond could be ousted as Chancellor, but as more of a pragmatist appointing him to the Brexit job would not amuse the backbenchers. A few EU nerds I trust make the case for Robin Walker, the current Minister of State for Brexit. But the party is not replete with adequate candidates to replace Davis.
The problem of course for May is that Davis is popular within the Tory Party and – for internal reasons if nothing else – it might be better to keep him, especially if her majority is low. Were that to be the case the issue then is how Davis would actually approach negotiations, seeing as he so far appears to have little understanding of the complexity and importance of the task in hand. £1bn would be a lot for an exit settlement he ridiculously railed in The Sunday Times yesterday (summary from Zelo Street here). Last week he complained that some on the EU side were trying to get him sacked (possibly a message to May more than Brussels?) His appearance at the Brexit Select Committee in March was horrid – he had no understanding of elementary matters like the EHIC system.
Meanwhile the most alarming part of Davis’s approach is he has continually flirted with the idea of walking away from the negotiations without a deal and crashing out of the EU, assuming either that this would not be a catastrophic outcome, or that it would hurt the EU more than it would hurt the UK (in reality it is the opposite), and hence it is a legitimate negotiation tactic to keep raising the issue. This is a sure way to lose goodwill from the EU side.
This is the context of the Juncker-Barnier-May-Davis Brexit dinner, the details of which leaked to the FAZ, and the speech by Merkel the following day warning the UK of ‘illusions’ on Brexit. Brexit is not the only issue for May’s premiership, but it is the major issue, and its complexity necessitates having someone holding all the pieces of it together, a task that May cannot accomplish herself – for that she needs a competent Minister. Davis could be that person, the one who keeps the whole process on track on the UK side. Or he could be the one who ultimately drives the UK to the edge of a cliff. Or – with enough of a majority to allow her to do it – May could pull the handbrake, and give the task to someone else. Within three weeks we will know.
Something which has bothered me is whether May is trying to make Brexit look like a catastrophe so that, at the end of the process, the public opinion will have shifted towards remaining in the EU, a second referendum thereby being an option.