Bungling of UK election puts PM May in serious political pickle
© Getty Images

One has to pity Theresa May, the United Kingdom’s hapless prime minister, who has got herself into the most awful of political predicaments. On the very eve of the Brexit negotiations, the most complex and consequential for her country in decades, she is struggling to cobble together only the slimmest of parliamentary majorities with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party. Worse yet, she has the misfortune of having to lead a Conservative Party that is riven with the deepest of divisions precisely over the Brexit issue.

When the Brexit negotiations with the country’s European partners begin in 10 days time, May faces a Hobson choice. On the one hand, she can decide to listen to the will of the electorate in last week’s election and soften her hardline stance toward Brexit. She can do so by showing flexibility on the questions of strict limits on immigration and of not abiding by the decisions of the European Court of Justice. However, to do so would risk triggering a party revolt by that significant number of her backbenchers who would not want anything short of a hardline Brexit position.

ADVERTISEMENT

Alternately, May can soldier on with her hardline Brexit stance and continue to insist that no Brexit deal is better for the country than a bad Brexit deal. However, this too risks a party revolt but this time by those of her backbenchers who will be reluctant to defy the will of the electorate that gave the clearest of messages that it does not want a hard Brexit.

 

May’s European counterparts are unlikely to make her life easy. It is not simply that they will likely treat her as a lame duck prime minister with little real authority. Rather, it is that they will likely force her to make early decisions that could hasten a domestic vote of no confidence in her leadership.

They might do so by maintaining their current position that, before getting into substantive negotiations on the U.K.’s future trade relationship with Europe, there first needs to be agreement on those thorny issues where the United Kingdom and Europe appear to be far apart. These include the United Kingdom’s contribution to the European budget and its treatment of European citizens already residing in the United Kingdom.

May is likely to find that she has significantly weakened her negotiating position with her European partners by having triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March before having called for a general election in June. The triggering of Article 50 now requires that the Brexit negotiations be wrapped up by March 2019 or within two years of its having been triggered.

This leaves May with little time to stall in the Brexit negotiations while the two-year clock keeps on ticking for the completion of those negotiations. That in turn risks leaving the country without a Brexit deal at the end of the two-year period.

All of this seems to suggest that May’s days as prime minister are numbered and that she is very unlikely to survive in her job for more than six months at best. It also means that it is all too likely that the United Kingdom is headed toward yet another keenly contested general election that will further waste time in getting a Brexit deal done.

Another election is very much to be regretted since the last thing that an already slowing U.K. economy now needs is more political uncertainty that could further sour investor confidence and that could further weaken the pound. It would also seem to be the last thing that May needs since it heightens the chances that she will go down in the history books as not only among the shortest-tenured of the country’s prime ministers but also as its most inept.

 

Desmond Lachman is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He was formerly a deputy director in the International Monetary Fund’s Policy Development and Review Department and the chief emerging market economic strategist at Salomon Smith Barney.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.