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Political predictions: The pressure is off on Brexit and the Lib Dems once again have a clear cause (DCastor)


Making predictions about how politics will look after this year’s general election — when writing just as the election has been called — is a foolish undertaking. Nevertheless, I will make two perhaps unexpected forecasts.

By calling an election three years before it was scheduled under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, Theresa May has delayed the effective implementation of Brexit and has saved the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. These may seem very odd things to claim. After all, the rationale for calling an early election is so that the May government has a free hand to implement Brexit and can push through all the necessary legislation with a renewed mandate and increased majority. The Conservatives look as if they are heading for their biggest majority since 1983. Yet there are strong reasons for believing this is the case.

With the invoking of Article 50 at the end of March, the clock was started on a two-year period leading to the UK’s exit from the European Union in the spring of 2019. The only way this period can be extended is if the EU member states unanimously agree — which with the current state of relations seems rather unlikely. It is also most unlikely that other EU member states will still want us as a full member at the time of the European Parliament elections in June 2019 and the appointment of a new Commission immediately after that. So it seems we are set to exit in 2019 — but that does not mean that the final terms will have been agreed by then. Every process in the history of EU institutions has taken longer than it was meant to, and there is no reason for thinking that Brexit will be different. In all likelihood, all that will have been agreed by 2019 will be transitional arrangements with the final settlement still to be negotiated.

Why does an early election make this more likely? If the Conservatives had been looking at a 2020 election, May would have wanted to ensure that Brexit would have been a settled matter by then — and that the Tories could argue that what the British people had voted for on June 23, 2016, had been delivered. With an election now — on the specific issue, as the Conservatives want to frame it, of implementing and pushing through Brexit — that pressure is off. Now the May government will have an extra two years to negotiate the final terms. The following election will not be scheduled until 2023; if the final settlement is in place by 2021 there will be plenty of time to show that Brexit has not had the dire consequences that the Remainers claimed it would, and indeed there will be time for the inevitable transitional hiccups to look as if they are on the way to being overcome. So an election called to push through Brexit is in fact likely to delay its effective implementation.

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