So what do they do now? On the face of it, Theresa May and her slightly reshuffled Cabinet face nearly insurmountable constraints and dangers.
The normal survival plan for a minority government is to pass little legislation, but preparation for Brexit requires a mass of complex and controversial law-making. Any threat to execute a “no deal” strategy and take the UK in a lower-tax, lighter regulation direction has lost much of its credibility, so our negotiating position in Europe is weaker.
The escape route of another dissolution is unattractive because the result might be the same again, or even worse. The election result has undermined confidence in an economy already facing the uncertainties of leaving the EU, threatening a downturn to compound the problems.
In the worst-case scenario, we end up with a poor Brexit deal rejected in parliament but with no alternative available, presided over by ministers suffering mounting public and business dissatisfaction, leading to the election of a Labour government led, in effect, by Marxists.
Faced with such dangers, sitting tight is not an option. Napoleon’s maxim that “the side that stays within its fortifications is beaten” applies fully to this situation. Breaking out of these problems will require a change both of style and substance, treating last week’s terrible outcome as an opportunity and a duty to tackle intractable issues in new ways.
Of course, many items in the Conservative manifesto will have to be abandoned. But other areas could be intensified. Take housing, for instance, which all parties agree is a major national priority. Ministers could convene a cross–party working group, including the new mayors of the big cities, to agree a plan to accelerate new home building across the country by changing regulation, taxes and spending in an agreed way. If successful this would boost the economy and help young people. It would signal a more open approach to problem solving. And if opposition parties did not play a constructive role, the blame for lack of progress would lie with them.
Such a simultaneous change of the style of government and the substance of its decisions is also the way to break through the most difficult problem of all: how to steer Brexit in a way that leads to a good agreement, gives confidence to businesses and creates a broader consensus among MPs.
This is formidably difficult, and a hundred times easier for me to write about than to pull off in reality. But the alternative of saying “nothing has changed”, and ploughing on against half the Commons, two thirds of the Lords and all of Europe will only end in disappointment and defeat.
The UK’s Tory Party has a short to medium-term problem with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. More importantly, it has a longer-term problem with the EU following Mrs May’s disastrous election campaign. She is still talking about mutually beneficial agreements between the UK and EU. That might have just been possible if she still had the UK electorate heavily behind her, but she does not.
Europe has no interest in separate but beneficial trade agreements and is also emboldened by its recent economic recovery, greatly assisted by the European Central Bank. Europe’s political heavyweights led by Germany and France want humiliation for the UK, so that no other EU country will similarly try to break away.
On Tuesday, Wolfgang Schaeuble, standing in for Angela Merkel who faces re-election, said in a Bloomberg article: U.K. Welcome Back If Brexit Was Overturned. Emmanuel Macron just said the same thing to Theresa May in Paris. In other words, the UK can return as a political supplicant, provided that it abandons policies currently favoured by over 70% of the electorate.
Here is a PDF of William Hague’s column.Back to top