Albert Einstein once professed that politics was more difficult than physics and through the prism of the past 54 days and the machinations and political wrangling since the UK election, it would appear that there is an element of truth in the famed scientist’s statement.
Whether it be the debates surrounding the start of the Brexit negotiations or the controversial confidence-and-supply coalition arrangement with the DUP – only 54 days have passed since the election which shocked and surprised most pollsters and analysts’ predictions; the copious manoeuvrings would tire even the most seasoned of political analysts.
Theresa May called the election looking to bolster her position as Prime Minister with a strengthened Tory majority, which could, in theory, make Brexit negotiations more straightforward, as well as extend her Tory administration to 2022 – theoretically 3 years after the two-year Article 50 deadline. This would theoretically give ample time for a transition period to unfold without the distraction of an election in 2020.
However, the mandate that she was seeking – a mandate for Brexit, a mandate to govern, a mandate of a Conservative majority – was spectacularly undermined by a poor Conservative campaign coupled with a resurgent Labour vote, especially amongst the younger generation. Age was the biggest dividing factor since 1979 (Ipsos) and the result could have been even more surprising if more of the younger demographic had turned out to vote. According to YouGov, more under-30s didn’t vote than voted Labour; Mrs May can only imagine what would’ve happened if this demographic had all registered to vote.
As a result, as Parliament retreated for the summer recess, it was only through a somewhat cobbled together deal with the DUP that Ms May was still in No. 10. Despite Michael Gove’s assertion that the government and the cabinet are “united”, the Conservative party still appears shaken from the shock of the election and a two-party state has emerged with neither the Conservatives nor Labour realistically dominating Westminster.
It is within this environment of uncertainty that Brexit negotiations have begun – yet David Davis no longer appears to hold the sort of strength of hand to command authority. Within the first rounds of talks, the government have already had to change their position on the sequence of the discussions. Having initially wanted to agree future relationships before getting on to the separation arrangements, the government have capitulated to the EU who wanted the exact opposite. Amongst other metaphors, the position of Mr Davis has perhaps been most vividly captured by Sir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, with a comparison to a chocolate orange – fragile and liable to fall apart at the tap of an EU demand.
Interestingly, it is exactly 54 days until the German electorate go to the polls on September 24th in another key election for the European continent. Angela Merkel will seek a fourth term in office and EU officials will hope that she is more successful than Mrs May in getting a mandate from the German populace – especially given concern amongst EU diplomats relating to the surge in populist parties in recent years. Whilst the election of an EU-supporting Emmanuel Macron in the French election gave a much-needed fillip to European technocrats, there is still a nervous uncertainty surrounding elections in 2017.
Whether the result will help to provide any further certainty to the Brexit negotiations remains to be seen but, until then, Mrs May would perhaps be better suited to trying to uphold her minority position in Westminster. Unless, of course, her summer hikes in the Alps inspire her to call another election…