Where Does This Leave Us on Brexit?
The new Prime Minister will inherit the Conservative Party’s parliamentary lack of majority, reliance on the DUP for a working majority and division over whether a no deal Brexit is sustainable. An early challenge will be whether to continue the current parliamentary session (already the longest since 1651) or “prorogue” (i.e. end a session of) Parliament. A new session would have to be opened with a Queen’s Speech, which would require a new confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP, which would be a further challenge – but failure to secure a parliamentary majority for the Queen’s Speech would almost certainly lead to the collapse of the government, and could well end the fledgling term of the new Prime Minister. So, a continuation of this “zombie Parliament” looks likely. The government normally enjoys a significant benefit through its control of the legislative timetable. However, the advent of a Prime Minister willing to pursue a no deal Brexit approach would strengthen the resolve of MPs to seek to use amendments to Brexit legislation to make no deal Brexit unlawful without, for example, holding a confirmatory referendum. Significantly, the Speaker, John Bercow, announced on 28 May 2019 that he would not – as some had assumed – retire in July: the Speaker’s willingness to use his position to ensure that the government acts on the will of Parliament would make a new Prime Minister trying to drive toward a no deal Brexit much harder.
The only way the new Prime Minister could avoid the risk of legislative amendment completely would be to avoid any new legislation before the date of Brexit, but that would be a high-risk approach to Brexit, and create huge challenges for a post-Brexit government. No deal Brexit has strengthened as an option in the polls, but remains far from enjoying majority support of the electorate. Delivering a messy and chaotic no deal Brexit, over-riding the will of Parliament but then being unable to govern effectively, would be a triumph of hope over reason.
While no deal Brexit has become more likely as a component of Conservative Party, and therefore government, policy, significant obstacles to it remain in Parliament. However, the prospects for a Brexit deal also remain complex – opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands has hardened in 2019, and probably even more so as a result of the EP elections. There is no sign that the EU would be willing to re-negotiate the most contentious part of it: the Irish border backstop. Without such re-negotiation, a parliamentary majority looks unachievable.
What Does This Mean for Trade Talks?
Put simply, nothing will happen in the UK-US trade talks until the seat of Prime Minister is occupied and Brexit is sorted. Further, although EU-US trade negotiations are open and can progress on more technical items, such as regulatory recognition, it is unlikely that much progress can be made on any difficult issues until the new EU institutions are in place (new EP begins its session in July; new European Commission takes over in November).
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