In early 2017 few people would have predicted a stalemate in Britain’s exit negotiations with the European Union juxtaposed with a parliamentary debacle possibly culminating with a radical left-winger moving into 10 Downing Street. But the coming-to-power of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party opposition leader, is a distinct possibility. It is perhaps not the most likely scenario, but Britain’s political turbulence means the probability is fast approaching 50%.
Conflicting messages from the government are distorting Britain’s fraught discussions with the EU. Prime Minister Theresa May’s speeches give the right signals, but she apparently does not realise that a speech is a means to an end and not an end in itself. She seems to think the matter is disposed of with the speech; it is not.
The next few weeks will be unpropitious for UK-Europe relations. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is negotiating her next parliamentary coalition and has little time for Brexit. Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, with whom May is on difficult terms, will present his Budget on 22 November. He must address uncertainty over Brexit, falling growth, rising interest rates, higher national debt, and a permanently high current account deficit.
To get the Budget passed, every Conservative member of parliament must vote for it. The same is true of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which agreed to provide support to the Conservative minority government after May’s disastrous June general election. A gathering row over the allegedly unauthorised visits to Israel by Priti Patel, UK international development minister, exacerbates May’s problems in cabinet.
Even the most masterful political leader who enjoys goodwill and political capital would find these conditions challenging; May has none of these assets. She may discover that concessions demanded by one side are unpalatable to another. Her slim DUP-assisted majority (with just 327 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons) leaves no room for manoeuvre.
Reports of numerous parliamentary sexual harassment cases weaken May’s position further. She has no choice but to take a tough line. Doing so, however, will make enemies. The scandal may lead to by-elections, with an unhappy electorate taking revenge. Or it may stimulate ‘penalised’ Conservative MPs to join the rebels asking for a confidence vote over May’s leadership of the party. She is already, to borrow a phrase once used in relation to John Major’s 1990s government, ‘in office but not in power’.
Scandals and uncertainty about the DUP’s reliability may create the opportunity for the Labour party to topple May. If Corbyn could form a government, it would be up to him to set a path for Brexit with little more than one year left before the March 2019 negotiating deadline. A soft exit, preferred by business, seems out of reach inside this timetable. Few would expect such a Labour government to last long in the light of party divisions, which are at least as strong as those between the disparate Conservative conclaves.
There are only limited ways for Corbyn to take over. Dissolving the current government requires a two-thirds majority vote by MPs. The make-up of the House of Commons means this is unlikely. The Conservative party remains the largest in parliament, with 317 seats. Neither May nor other Conservative MPs appear eager to fight another election in the light of their poor performance in June. The second method is a vote of no confidence in the government, though this has not been successfully executed since 1979.
An alternative may arise if the Conservative’s themselves oust May. A new party leader might be inclined to secure his or her position – as May tried to do – by calling a general election. Labour and other opposition parties would gladly accept the opportunity.
Whatever happens, for business in Britain the coming months are likely to be a nightmare of speculation and ambiguity. May’s weakness might be her strength. The fear of Corbyn taking over is her greatest asset – perhaps her only one.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.