In my predictions for the 2017 snap election, I claimed that in all likelihood, Theresa May and the Tories would secure a larger parliamentary majority, and that majority would more than likely not affect Brexit negotiations as it would neither change the European Union’s terms nor strengthen the UK’s leverage. But, as events over the last couple months have demonstrated, I was completely wrong on many fronts. The election actually has changed how the UK is approaching Brexit, and that is entirely because of the precarious situation the Tories have found themselves in after losing their majority and forcing a hung parliament upon themselves.
Despite my criticisms of him, Jeremy Corbyn was able to lead a strong enough campaign to secure more seats for Labour than most polls had projected. Several factors contributed to this, including higher young voter turnout (although I would credit Labour’s gains with the fact that young voters usually avoid voting Conservative anyway than because of Corbyn’s campaign), a surprising number of former UKIP voters turning to Labour (granted, UKIP defectors overall benefitted the Tories more so than Labour), and Theresa May’s utterly abysmal campaign (“Running through fields of wheat is now officially the second worst thing Theresa May ever did”). Despite these strong gains, Labour is still heavily divided. Pro-EU sentiment within the Parliamentary Labour Party is still running very strong, in contrast to Corbyn’s Eurosceptic views. This factionalism resurfaced when Corbyn sacked three shadow ministers and caused another to resign over an amendment to the Queen’s speech that called for the UK to remain part of the EU’s single market and customs union. There are further rumors that Corbyn is planning on deselecting more moderate Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) to replace them with MPs more loyal to him. So, even though Labour performed surprisingly well in the election, chances are that Labour will be too divided to act properly on the topic of Brexit.
That being said, the Tories seem to be in a much worse position. The fact that they not only failed to secure the landslide majority they were hoping for from the snap election (with some of the early polls putting them around twenty points ahead of Labour) but also outright lost their already thin majority has caused many within the party to become discontent with Theresa May’s leadership, as her apparent weakness throughout the campaign contributed to the Conservatives’ poor performance. May has since taken responsibility for her failures, but that has done little to quiet the criticisms levelled against her. Some have even predicted that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has already begun gathering support to lead a coup within the Tory party to replace May. In addition, others within the Conservative party are concerned with how they have been forced into a supply and confidence deal with the very rightwing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This is because the DUP holds notorious ties with the far-right extremist Ulster Volunteer Force, which committed numerous terrorist attacks during The Troubles, and also because the deal funnels a whopping £1.5 billion into Northern Ireland’s public infrastructure over the next few years when some of those funds could be more equitably spent across the rest of the UK. While the supply and confidence deal ensures that the DUP will not have any positions in May’s cabinet, it does mean that May and the Tories have to maintain a precarious balancing act if they want to pass anything through parliament. So far, it has been extremely difficult for the Tories, as the DUP forced May to renegotiate some Brexit terms regarding the UK’s border with Ireland. May attempted to reshuffle her cabinet to quiet further internal conflict, but she could not even do that successfully. Moreover, considering May’s already tenuous grip on power and rumors of a new neoliberal and anti-Brexit party being established by former Tories looking to switch course on Brexit, chances are that her now inevitable fall from power will cause the supply and confidence deal to collapse too, which will place the Tories in even deeper trouble.
Because of the weakness of the Conservative party in government, the UK has been forced to approach Brexit negotiations much more carefully. Despite May claiming that she would refuse the EU’s terms of negotiating a “divorce bill” before negotiating a trade deal (if the leaks are accurate), Brexit Secretary David Davis eventually agreed to those terms less than two weeks after the election. Other prominent voices from the Conservative party, like former Prime Minister John Major and former leader William Hague, have called for May and other leading Tories to seek a cross-party consensus on what the UK should try to get out of the negotiations since the Conservative party no longer has the majority it needs to vote on Brexit-related bills. Big business in the UK (which tend to be on good terms with the business-friendly Tories) and even as many as 58% of Leave voters are opposed to the hard Brexit that May seemed to be in favor of. Furthermore, the aforementioned risky supply and confidence deal that the Tories have with the DUP will likely complicate later Brexit talks. Because of all these developments, the cold reality of Brexit seems to have dawned upon the Tory leadership: namely, that the EU is holding all the cards and that the UK has to respect the EU’s stronger position if it wants to secure a Brexit that benefits Britain.