Timing is everything: how a snap election could make Brexit smoother

Mrs May alone can explain her motivation for calling an early election. Rumours and speculation abound about her precise reasoning but a general consensus on her prime motivation seems to be: reinforcing her legitimacy to deliver Brexit. The logic goes: there is a better chance of successfully delivering Brexit by going early and fighting against a divisive Labour leader in Jeremy Corbyn at a time when the economy is holding up, rather than risk waiting until the opposition reorganises and Brexit uncertainty potentially leads to economic jitters. And of course, winning an election with a greater majority would no doubt cement her control of her party and the country (possibly in that order).

But instead of focusing on the short term domestic objectives, perhaps one of the more interesting things to speculate on is the potential impact of the timing of the UK election for the Brexit negotiations in the medium term. An 8 June 2017 election means the next general election won’t be in 2020 (as would have been the case if there hadn’t been a snap election called) but will now only take place in 2022. This increases the time (by two years) between the generally accepted date of Brexit formally applying (circa March 2019) and the subsequent general election.

The UK government’s official position remains that both the Brexit deal and the future UK/EU relationship can be negotiated in parallel by March 2019. The EU27 disagree. Mrs May has recently inferred to the possible need for more time to ensure a smooth the Brexit process – hence the importance she places on an “implementation phase”. For their part, the EU27 support a smooth Brexit process, even if they use different terminology. The EU believes “transitional arrangements” can be discussed but only once we know where the UK is transitioning to (i.e. after the divorce settlement and the basic framework for the future relationship are both agreed).

Were Mrs May to win an increased majority and were she to be so inclined, she would have the opportunity of accepting an implementation phase/transitional arrangement of up to 3 years before having to fight another election campaign. Interestingly the European Parliament recently adopted a non-binding resolution suggesting just such a 3 year transitional phase could be envisaged. Even if both sides, in principle, agree to the logic of transitional arrangements, there are still many obstacles ahead in terms of agreeing the precise modalities. The biggest tension will likely be an EU27 “take it or leave it” stance of only accepting a general (not sector specific) transitional arrangement which would see the UK retain the right of access to the single market in exchange for accepting the obligations attached to it – free movement, ECJ jurisdiction and continued payments into the EU budget. This remains a tough sell for Mrs May to some in her party colleagues as well as some in the country. But what’s certain is that getting political and parliamentary endorsement for such a scenario will be simpler with a larger majority. That knowledge might reassure, helping Mrs May and her EU partners as and when they tackle the tricky political issue of transitional arrangements. And that is how a snap election could make Brexit smoother.