By Bhaswati Mukherjee*
It has been famously that seven days is a long time in politics. This maxim applies aptly to the present UK political scene. There has been a dramatic drop in popular support for the Conservatives over a six week period. The roaring back of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party is one of the most important political narratives in the making in Europe. Another two weeks, Labour Party sources say, could have seen the decimation of the Conservative Party.
Did the results reflect the anger of the 48% of the “Remainers”? Had the country turned against May’s grand plan of a hard Brexit, negotiated and signed, bypassing Parliament? Was it the result of a flawed election campaign, reflecting arrogance, a refusal for a public debate and calls for cuts for care for the elderly, scathingly referred to by the media as a “dementia tax”? More significantly, in the European context, the results brought a halt to the swing to the extreme right, predicted immediately after the victory of President Donald Trump in the US.
One immediate effect was the call by senior Tory and Labour MPs to forge a new cross-party approach to Brexit. May was told to drop her “hard Brexit” approach in favour of a new “national” consensus, which could be endorsed by members from all sides of the House of Commons. This would enable parliamentary scrutiny of the process. It would throw open the debate on what kind of Brexit was desirable. There were apprehensions that May’s political vulnerability could lead to the imminent collapse of Brexit talks due on 19 June 2017.
Reflecting similar fears, Labour’s Yvette Cooper called for a cross-party commission to run the negotiations and a transparent process to build a consensus. Cooper noted: “In a hung parliament, you can’t possibly try to run the Brexit negotiations through a Theresa May-led Tory cabal. The whole thing will just fall apart. It would be impossible to drive through the expected nine separate Brexit bills, on issues as wide-ranging as immigration policy, the right of EU citizens and trade, on the whim of a weakened Prime Minister in charge of a minority administration.” Former Tory cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell, now chairman of the European Movement, a pro-EU group, said: “It is essential that Parliament maintains for itself the option of voting for Britain to remain a member of the EU if it becomes clear that this is the best way to secure Britain’s national interest.”
Particularly ironical were informal reports emanating from Brussels that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had urged May to call the elections before negotiations commence. He was reportedly concerned that the 17-seat majority that May had inherited from David Cameron would be inadequate on issues such as the UK’s divorce bill, estimated to be about €100 billion. Juncker’s chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, on Twitter today re- tweeted one German journalist who had commented: “Cameron wanted to secure his power and got the Brexit. May wanted to secure their power, and screwed up the Brexit! Strange”. It reflects the Commission’s thinking on this issue.
How do these developments impact India? 12 Indian-origin MPs, from Labour and Conservative Party respectively, were swept to victory, including two first timers who made to the House. Among them was Labour MP Keith Vaz who is today UK’s longest serving Asian MP. Four MPs came from Jalandhar, Punjab, leading analysts to compare these results with composition of Canadian Government, where four Sikhs are cabinet ministers and 19 are members of the Canadian Parliament. Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi became the first turbaned Sikh MP while Preet Kaur Gill as the first Sikh woman MP, adding diversity to the ethnic representation in the House of Commons. India’s voice is now represented in both parties.
There has been media speculation that May is probably a better deal for India than Corbyn and his Labour Party. This could be a premature or flawed conclusion. During May’s visit to India, she had refused to compromise on immigration or other issues of vital importance to India, issues where both Cameron and Blair had demonstrated much greater understanding and sensitivity. There is no certainty that she would change her stand. In case she is replaced through an internal Tory revolt by Boris Johnson, for whom a signature campaign has already begun, the dynamics could change. During his own visit to Delhi, Johnson demanded a new “turbocharged” relationship with India. He however had made no commitment on “free movement of people” and “greater access to the UK for students and IT professionals”.
With the pound falling against the dollar and weakening in one day by 17% against the rupee, Indian exports have suddenly become more expensive. The negotiations on a bilateral Free Trade Agreement, once the Brexit deal is complete, especially if May continues as Prime Minister, would be a complex process. The Indian Ministry of Commerce has commenced an internal audit and analysis of the trade issues with UK in anticipation of the negotiations. If in terms of the final Brexit agreement, Indian business in UK are denied access to the EU market, the result would be the flight of Indian business from UK to Europe. Bilaterally, India would continue to insist on inclusion of Mode 4 under WTO (Mode 4 covers temporary movement of natural persons). UK, under May, is unlikely to be flexible on Mode 4 and open up to immigration.
Indian policy makers hope that if the coalition arrangements works and the Conservatives form a minority government with the Northern Ireland based DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), May would be compelled to compromise on immigration issues, given that the DUP rejects a hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic, a border which has been fluid since the Good Friday agreement. DUP would inevitably steer May to a soft Brexit, which would also be debated and voted upon in Parliament. In a complex and uncertain scenario what is clear is a soft Brexit is good for India. Ultimately, the result of these elections could result in a more balanced and fair bilateral Free Trade Agreement. Seven days is indeed a long time in politics.
*Bhaswati Mukherjee is a former Indian Ambassador and an expert on European affairs