As Brexit talks begin, PM May left with precious few options

As the much-anticipated Brexit negotiations now begin in Brussels, the signs do not appear to be propitious for their early conclusion or for the early return to British political stability. This is not simply due to U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government appearing to be in disarray.

It is rather because May’s negotiators are hewing to a “hard” Brexit position despite the fact that the recent U.K. elections revealed little popular support for such a hardline approach to the European question. 

In March 2017, May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that formally began the two-year period within which a deal is to be completed for the U.K.’s exiting from the European Union. Shortly after having done so, she called a snap general election for June 8 in the hope that she would receive a strong political mandate from the electorate for her “hard” Brexit line.


During the election campaign, May left little doubt about her hard Brexit position. Indeed, she campaigned on a platform that no deal was better for her country than a bad Brexit deal.

She also insisted that the U.K. should stick to its position that it must regain complete control over its borders, and it must free itself from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. She did so despite the fact that she knew that these were red lines for her European partners insofar as granting the U.K. continued favorable access to the Single Market. 

In the event, far from receiving a strong mandate from the electorate, May managed to lose the Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority. She also managed to resuscitate the hitherto languishing opposition Labor Party and to restore the fortunes of Jeremy Corbyn its hard-left leader. In an attempt to ensure that she will have the votes needed to govern with a minority government, May has been seeking to forge a loose alliance with the Democratic Union Party, a small right-of-center party in Northern Ireland.

Seemingly unfazed by her major electoral setback, May is approaching the Brexit negotiations as if nothing has happened. Despite the fact that the electorate apparently wants a softer Brexit than she is proposing, she shows little sign of backing down from her hard Brexit position. As if to underline this point, Phillip Hammond, her chancellor of exchequer, is now taking the position that not only should the U.K. leave the Single Market, but it should also exit the European customs union.

In his view, the point of the Brexit negotiations should be to ensure that this type of hard exit occurs in an orderly way over a number of years rather than having the U.K. go over a cliff at the end of the two-year period.  

May now appears to be in a highly-unenviable position. If she takes a softer Brexit line in Brussels, she is almost certain to face a leadership challenge from within her own party that could in turn precipitate yet another general election.

Yet, if she hews to her hard Brexit line, she can expect to make little progress in Brussels, which knows that her domestic political position is tenuous and that she does not have a mandate for a hard Brexit. Why conclude a deal now with PM May when there is the real prospect that one could be negotiating with someone friendlier to the European project than she appears to be? 

All of this does not bode well for an early return to U.K. political stability under May’s leadership. It would also not seem to bode well for the U.K. economy. It would seem to be only a matter of time before both domestic and foreign investors begin to sour seriously on the U.K. economy. They will do so as they increasingly perceive that a long and drawn out Brexit negotiation lies ahead with little clarity as to whether the U.K. will continue to enjoy access to the Single Market in the end.

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.