Questions, questions

So many questions with so little time and few answers. Why call a UK election after 75% of MPs backed the triggering of Article 50? Maybe because the House of Lords might try to change the final deal? But they couldn’t have blocked anything in the manifesto of a majority government. And if the mandate carried forward from 2015 needed updating, because exit arrangements hadn’t been specified, then it’s strange that the new manifesto lacked any detail. Of course, the Lords can block things now (if they want to).

We were told that an increased majority would help to get a better deal. However, the actual withdrawal agreement is about the technical arrangements that are needed once the EU treaties cease to apply so, apart from some financial calculations, there is little for the EU27 to bargain on. Besides, telling MPs that their vote on the deal would be ‘take it or leave it’ also told the EU that it didn’t matter what MPs thought in any case.

Add to that the fact that the EU27 will now be negotiating with a minority government that needs Parliament to pass a bill on repatriating EU laws (which after three 3 months hasn’t been seen yet) and an estimated seven additional bills, eg. changing the law on immigration and on customs, as well as contingency laws in case there is no deal.

What is going to happen next? Firstly, when negotiations start next week, the government should just accept the EU27’s agenda and sequencing. That includes settling citizens’ rights early on even if the issue of future dispute arbitration might take longer to agree.

Further forward, the Conservative manifesto proposed leaving the Single Market and Customs Union and ending European Court jurisdiction. This is known as a “hard” Brexit, although it covers different deals on the future EU relationship that can only be agreed after the UK has actually left. Not enough voters have approved that to create a mandate but they didn’t approve a “soft” Brexit either because the Labour manifesto also proposed ending free movement which restricts the UK’s future access to the Single Market.

All this could require a second election, after an unnecessary one. However, the government doesn’t want to face questions arising such as: how will the public react and what is the effect of losing time in EU negotiations? Instead, they might conclude that the message from enough voters, even ones who supported Leave, was that domestic and economic concerns are more important. To deliver on these things will need policy changes which in turn require parliamentary time currently likely to be consumed by the preparations for leaving the EU. While that remains the final destination, the big, unanswered question that has been looming for over a year now is how much the public are prepared to pay to get there.

The writer is a former EU policy advisor to the UK Government and also chaired the EU Employment Committee.