Election focus: The General Election and Brexit – diversion, divisions and tactics

In the next piece in our election focus series, Janice Morphet looks at the impact of the general Election’s delay to Brexit negotiations, questions that aren’t being answered, how each party are approaching Brexit in their campaigns and the significance of tactical voting.

Janice Morphet

As the General Election campaign moves on, it appears to be characterised more by pauses than progression.

We now have the EU ready to start negotiating in a serious manner while foghorn diplomacy is all they meet across the channel. Since the Prime Minister took office, there has been a wasted period when the electorate has been lulled into assuming that these negotiations will be easy while the EU has been consistent about its position and the issues.

The EU finds it hard to deal with shocks but thrives on process. Once it could appoint its negotiators and set out its red lines it became stronger and more confident and this would have occurred whoever it faced in number 10.

In calling the election after setting the Article 50 clock ticking, the Prime Minister has committed to reducing the negotiation time available by seven weeks.

“In calling the election after setting the Article 50 clock ticking, the Prime Minister has committed to reducing the negotiation time available by seven weeks.”

This is a long run-in period for a ‘snap’ election and creates a further drag on the real commencement of the negotiations. In the uncertainty of post- election Cabinet reshuffles and shifting ideological positions, neither Whitehall nor Brussels will know quite what to say and who should speak to whom. A further pause has been caused by the local and combined authority elections. These have provided an opportunity to consider how to focus campaigns by issue and locality and although seasoned politicians know that the electorate frequently prefers to have different parties in government at national and local levels, this truism may not prevail in 2017.

During the General election campaign, the Brexit headlines and skirmishes are about the rights of EU citizens, including those from the UK and the development of a trade deal post Brexit. However, these also appear to be diversions away from what is inevitably going to be a very full agenda across a range of policy areas.

The Irish Government has been seeking and obtained reassurances from the EU about its position post Brexit including its external border of the EU, its strong economic relationships with the UK and the Good Friday Agreement. These will all loom large in the final agreement even if these issues are not at the forefront of current Whitehall and Westminster thinking.

What other preparations are being undertaken in Whitehall where EU policy and legislation sets much of the agenda and basis for action such as the Department of Transport and Defra?

We know little about this apart from the statement in Chapter 4 of the Great Repeal Bill White paper that the level of devolution is likely to be diminished post-Brexit. What is this based on?

“Is there a plan for any of these issues and why are they not being raised in the General Election?”

There are many other areas where the press is suggesting that there should be bullish action on the part of the UK – including employment rights, trade regulations, financial services and welfare benefits. New directly elected combined authority mayors have just been elected, but like the devolved nations, their powers and programmes rest centrally on EU policies and legislation. Where will this leave them? Is there a plan for any of these issues and why are they not being raised in the General Election?

Political commentators suggest that the only negotiations that have been undertaken so far by the Prime Minister have been within the Conservative party. Will the General Election help to move these internal negotiations forward?

During the campaign, the billing of the Prime Minister is appearing ahead of the Conservative Party in a hope to attract former UKIP voters and to ‘strengthen’ her hand in negotiation. Will this approach help to overcome this internal struggle or will many of the more moderate and experienced MPs be replaced by hard Brexiteers who will simply reinforce and continue this internal political struggle?

The Brexit referendum was always about dealing with the internal divisions in the Conservative party and a year on, the emotional rhetoric against the EU, similar in temperature and style to that of Leavers during the referendum campaign, shows that nothing has changed. Will Theresa May be strong enough to cope with what has been unleashed?

Different approaches

So what of the other political parties? How are they approaching Brexit in the election? The Liberal Democrats are the party of remain. They are committed to a second referendum if the terms of Brexit are not satisfactory. The Labour party position is confused and alienating for many. While most constituencies held by Labour MPs in the last election are in favour of leaving the EU, most of their supporters are in favour of remain. It seems that 2017 could be another 1997 for the Labour Party with at least ten years out of government.

Tactical voting

Lastly, there are issues of tactical voting to consider. A ‘snap’ general election of seven weeks gives some time for organization at the local level. The retirement of sitting MPS always loosens a party’s grip on seats while some constituencies wish their MPs would retire and may force them into this through local agreements between parties.

A spreadsheet showing who to vote for in each consistency to express support for remain over Brexit has been published. Gina Miller, who led the High Court case for a Parliamentary vote on triggering Article 50, has launched her Best for Britain campaign to support tactical voting for candidates that want Parliamentary agreement on the Brexit deal. Will this have any effect? We will see in the coming weeks and while there are almost certainly going to be upsets in some constituencies, whether these will be enough to force the in-coming Government’s hand is hard to say. In the Prime Ministers’ constituency at the last election, 35,453, people voted for her but 44,086 voted to remain in the EU. So will this be the General Election dominated by tactical voting? We will see if Brexit changes the voting habits of a lifetime…

Beyond Brexit? by Janice Morphet is currently available with 50% discount on the Policy Press website.  Order here for just £4.99.

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