Election results 2017: What does it mean for Brexit?

By James Landale
Diplomatic correspondent

Published
image copyrightReuters
image captionTheresa May's party has fewer seats than it started with

Britain's exit from the European Union has been plunged into uncertainty.

Theresa May has not secured the clear mandate that she sought for her version of a hard Brexit.

When she called the election, she declared: "Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union."

Well, she is not stronger.

She has fewer seats than she started with.

As a result, it will now be hard for the government - formed with the help of Northern Ireland's DUP - to start talking to the EU in nine days time as planned without rethinking its strategy.

Recipe for survival

The EU will be dismayed at the uncertainty the election has created.

They had hoped Mrs May, with a healthy majority under her belt, would be a strong negotiator, liberated from the strictures of the Brexit ultras in her party.

Instead, the 27 other EU member states are facing a divided British parliament in a divided Britain.

The EU's budget commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, told German radio he was unsure the Brexit negotiations could begin on time.

He said having Britain as a weak negotiating partner could result in what he described as "a poor outcome".

image copyrightReuters
image captionLabour leader Jeremy Corbyn has called on Mrs May to resign following the election result

With her government relying on the support of the DUP, Mrs May could start negotiations but she might have to compromise over her plans if she wants to get any Brexit-related legislation through the House of Commons.

Depending on the wishes of the Democratic Unionist Party MPs would be a recipe for survival, not stability.

If at any point Mrs May stands down as prime minister, any negotiations over Brexit would be delayed while the Conservative Party chooses a replacement for her and discusses if or how to change its approach to Brexit.

This would not be straightforward because Tory divisions over Europe would remain and potential leadership contenders would have to decide whether to argue for a soft or hard Brexit.

The key question would be this - can the Tories continue pushing for a hard Brexit, defined as a free trade deal with the EU outside the single market, the customs union and the free movement of workers?

Or might they be forced to consider a softer Brexit that involved, say, some single market membership in order to secure the support of other parties?

Might that put the so-called Norway option back on the table?

Norway, it must be remembered, has access to the single market through its membership of the European Economic Area but is not a member of the EU.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe 27 other EU member states are facing a divided British parliament in a divided Britain

Speaking on ITV News, the former Chancellor George Osborne said: "Hard Brexit went into the rubbish bin tonight."

There will now be a battle royal within the Conservatives between those who agree with Mr Osborne's analysis and those hardline Brexiteers who do not.

Second general election?

And of course there is always the possibility that a second general election could be called at some point.

This would yet more take time and yet more delay to any Brexit discussions.

One big question is whether the UK could stop the clock on the Article 50 Brexit negotiations which is ticking away until it automatically leaves in March 2019.

That would be hard but not impossible.

But it would require the political agreement of all 27 other EU member states and they would demand a high price.

Theresa May called this election to strengthen Britain's negotiating hand. She appears to have ended up weakening it.