Brexit: what happens after the election?

The UK general election means all options are back on the table: Remain, Leave and everything in between.

Conservatives Labour
37.2% 28.6%
Liberal Democrats Brexit Party
16.1% 9.3%
Green Party Other parties
3.0% 5.9%

(Source: Britain Elects. Correct as of 14 November)

What will happen to Brexit if one party has a majority?

The biggest problem over the last three years has been the parliamentary arithmetic. Members of parliament (MPs) have been unable to agree on how to handle Brexit and this has caused a stalemate. We find ourselves holding a general election because the Conservative government can’t govern and it couldn’t push its new Brexit deal through, while the opposition parties cannot agree on an alternative way forward.

Everything you need to know about the next general election

The hope, therefore, is that the election will result in one single party winning a big enough majority to finally resolve Brexit. If one political party emerges victorious, then they should have enough MPs to support their vision for Brexit and get it through the House of Commons – and they will be able to claim that they have won a mandate from the public to do so. In theory, it should put opposing arguments to bed.

Conservative majority: Johnson’s Brexit deal

If the Conservatives can secure a majority then it is highly likely that the UK will leave the EU before the end of the year. The Conservatives are putting all their weight behind the new Brexit deal that was agreed in October. Prime Minister Boris Johnson rushed to tweak the deal struck by his predecessor Theresa May with the hopes of getting it through parliament before his ‘do-or-die’ deadline to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October, but was unsuccessful.

The Conservatives are hoping to re-establish a majority so they can get Johnson’s deal approved. The party has said it would hope to get Brexit done by the end of the year. The current ‘flextension’ runs to the end of January 2020, but can be cut short if a resolution is found before.

Interestingly, there have been reports that the Conservatives could take no-deal off the table when they release the party manifesto to demonstrate support for the existing deal. The Conservatives argued no deal had to stay on the table during negotiations if the UK was to get a good deal, but they may now believe this is unnecessary because an agreement has been reached.

You can read the full legal text of the new Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration agreed between the UK and the EU released on 17 October here. Below is a list of some of the key points of the deal:

Key points of Boris’s Brexit deal

  • The UK and the EU would enter a transition period until the end of 2020, giving both sides time to negotiate a future trade deal and future relations. The UK will pay its way and adhere to EU rules during this time, but will lose its membership of major EU institutions. This could be extended by up to two years.
  • The UK would pay the ‘divorce bill’ to the EU, which is thought to total around £33 billion at present. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has said around 75% of that would be paid by 2022.
  • The UK and the EU would aim to agree a new free trade deal before the end of the transition period, but the political declaration stating the pair would aim to maintain a ‘level playing field’ have been removed, suggesting the UK can diverge from the EU more compared to May’s deal.
  • The whole of the UK will leave the EU customs union, which means the UK will be able to strike new trade deals with other countries after Brexit. They would only come into effect once the transition period ends.
  • However, to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, there will be a border down the Irish Sea between Great Britain and the island of Ireland. Goods would be checked when they are imported from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and taxes would be paid on goods at risk of finding their way into the Republic of Ireland (and therefore the EU).
  • Northern Ireland would also remain more closely aligned with the EU than the rest of the UK, by, for example, following EU regulations on issues such as food and agriculture. This prevents the need for physical checks on goods shipped south and the need to have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
  • The Northern Ireland Assembly would vote on the arrangements every four years and require a majority of members. Votes would be held every four years with the first one held in 2024 (based on the transition period running until the end of 2020).

The deal would mean radical change to how the UK and the EU trade with one another, but at least disruption would be curtailed by the transition period and the commitment to strike a new trade deal. It does take the UK out of the EU and places much of the burden on Northern Ireland, but it is a way of delivering Brexit without burning bridges with the EU under a no-deal scenario.

Labour majority: another extension and a second referendum

If Labour can secure a majority, then the Brexit debate will be reopened. The party has said it would aim to ‘get Brexit sorted’ within six months of being elected. It has said it would negotiate a new and better Brexit deal with the EU within three months. This would then represent a ‘credible Leave option’ that would go up against Remain in a second referendum that would be held in the subsequent three months.

Labour has said the referendum ‘won’t be a re-run of 2016’, stating: ‘this time the choice will be between leaving with a sensible deal or to remain in the European Union’. Some are unhappy that the referendum would only be between remain or a soft Brexit and that a harder split won’t be offered to the public.

This means a Labour government would seek another extension from the EU that runs beyond the end of January 2020 so it can hold a referendum. There is no guarantee that the EU would agree to such an extension, but it is likely considering that it would reopen the possibility that the UK could choose to stay in the EU.

Having said that, Jean Claude Juncker, the former chief of the EU that has recently gave way to Ursula von der Leyen, has described Labour’s plan as ‘unrealistic’. Labour has responded by stating it has discussed its Brexit plans with ‘many officials’ in the EU, including chief negotiator Michel Barnier. ‘I think we will get the deal that we need together,’ Jeremy Corbyn said in response.

Labour has been heavily criticised for sitting on the fence and not having a clear position on Brexit. It still refuses to publicly state how it would campaign during a second referendum because it is trying to keep both Labour’s Brexiteers and Remainers happy. Still, it is more likely that Labour will campaign to Remain than Leave. This has also highlighted another potential issue: Labour could try to strike a deal with the EU and then go on to campaign against it during the referendum.

What could Labour’s ‘credible Leave option’ look like?

Labour has said it will give voters the option to leave, but has made it clear it wants to keep a very close relationship with the EU. The party has said the basis of its deal would include ‘a new customs union, a close single market relationship and guarantees of rights and protections’. That would be one of the ‘softest’ possible forms of Brexit, but it would mean disruption would be minimal.

Labour is clearly aware it has both ardent Brexiteers and Remainers in its camp, hence why it has refused to pick a side so far, and it will face the same problem should it get into government because any new deal struck by Labour is unlikely to appeal to many Labour voters that want a harder break from the EU.

Liberal Democrat majority: Cancel Brexit on day one

The Liberal Democrats have said they would revoke Article 50 and ‘cancel Brexit’ altogether on the first day the party is elected if it can secure an outright majority. Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said ‘any type of Brexit will damage our economy, will cost jobs and starve our public services of the resources that they need’.

The party has claimed the UK would experience a ‘Remain bonus’ of £50 billion, which it wants to inject back into public services. It is true that remaining inside the EU would be welcomed by businesses and possibly unwind some of the negative impacts caused by the uncertainty so far, such as the fall in investment, but it is unfair to make such a claim and to say cancelling Brexit will provide billions to the public purse – the same way it is unfair to claim Brexit will provide a boost to the economy.

However, the Liberal Democrats know that it is highly unlikely the party can win a majority. It is, though, aware it could prove instrumental in forming a government if there is a hung parliament as many expect. The Liberal Democrats have said they would support calls for a second referendum and would campaign to Remain.

Brexit party majority: a hard Brexit

The Brexit Party would push for a no-deal Brexit and look to take the UK out of the EU without any withdrawal agreement. The party has said it would not pay the so-called ‘divorce bill’ and redirect funds currently sent to the EU, such as contributions to the European Investment Bank, to bankroll its domestic policies. The party believes a ‘clean-break Brexit’, which would not include any transition period, will see the country receive a ‘Brexit dividend’.

A hard Brexit is the most disruptive option for businesses. There would be nothing in place to govern trade and other matters between the UK and the EU and significant problems for the economy could appear overnight. The Brexit Party believes the UK is too important a partner for the EU and that a future trade deal could be agreed quickly, but it has no interest in discussing divorce proceedings first.

GBP/USD outlook: Brexit Party polling will play big role in GBP sentiment

What will happen to Brexit if there is a hung parliament and a coalition?

Both the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party have very clear and simple messages on Brexit and have been successful in stealing voters from both sides of the Brexit coin and across the political spectrum.

There has been a strong argument for some form of cross-party government to take over to try to heal the divisions within the country over Brexit and, considering bookmakers have priced in a 50% chance of a hung parliament, that may be what we get. A hung parliament means no single party has a majority and that two or more parties will have to form a coalition government in order to secure a majority in the House of Commons. While many people believe no single party should single-handedly manage Brexit, that is exactly what the country needs to put the issue to bed.

If the smaller parties are successful in splitting the vote and poaching voters from both Labour and the Conservatives, then this will drastically affect Brexit.

Conservative-led coalition: Johnson’s deal would give way to harder Brexit

If the Conservatives need to find a friend, they don’t have many options. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has propped up the current government, will not support the party whilst it pursues Johnson’s deal because they are unhappy that Northern Ireland is treated differently to the rest of the UK. That leaves only one other possible partner, and one that the Conservatives are not keen on: the Brexit Party.

After failing to strike a formal ‘Leave Alliance’, the Brexit Party has warmed to the Conservative’s idea of Brexit. The Brexit Party has said it will not stand in any of the seats that the Conservatives won in the 2017 election, but it will still challenge them in the 300-plus seats the government didn’t win.

The Conservatives are all-in on Johnson’s deal. It would be difficult for the party, and more so the prime minister, to scrap the deal it said it argued so hard for and push for a no-deal Brexit. However, we know there is support for a harder Brexit among existing Conservative MPs and voters. The Brexit Party’s original tactic seem to try and steer the Conservatives away from Johnson’s deal and head for a harder Brexit. However, it appears to now be trying to secure enough seats that it will be able to influence a new Conservative government from the inside.

Johnson’s deal could survive if the Conservatives and the Brexit Party establish a coalition but there is a risk that this will lead to alterations or steer the country toward a harder Brexit – and no-deal may be put back on the table.

Labour-led coalition: prepare for delays and referendums

Labour have more options on the table if it needs to find support from other parties in the event of a hung parliament, but it will not be simple. Swinson has said Corbyn is not fit to be prime minister and has so far refused to entertain the idea of propping up a Labour government. But Labour wants a second referendum and the Liberal Democrats have said they would support one if they can’t get their way and cancel Brexit altogether, so, when push comes to shove, the two could come together (even if there is a power struggle between the two leaders).

If the pair finds a way to work together, then there is little doubt that the UK would hold a second referendum within the six-month schedule that Labour has planned. The Liberal Democrats, or any of the other smaller parties, are unlikely to contest Labour’s plan to offer Remain against a soft Brexit as this will go in their favour. What it will do is apply pressure on Labour to campaign for Remain as you couldn’t have a coalition government formed of two parties supporting opposing views in the referendum.

The deal that Labour hopes to strike with the EU as the 'credible Leave option' could also become even softer if it relies on gaining the support of the Liberal Democrats, which will look to maintain the status quo as much as possible. Anyone who voted for Labour and Leave will be alienated.

Labour could also turn to the Scottish National Party (SNP) for support. The SNP has said it would support a second referendum, but again it would come with a big demand. In an ideal world, the SNP wants Scotland to remain in the EU, but leave the UK. As a result, if anyone wants the SNP support, then they will have to approve a second independence vote on Scottish independence. Labour had previously said it would not get in the way of ‘indyref2’ if the SNP won a majority in Scotland based on a pro-independence campaign during the 2021 Holyrood election, but has since made a U-turn and suggested it would not support a second referendum in its first term in charge. Still, if Labour needs the SNP’s support to form a government then the party will look to push for one in 2020. If the SNP is successful in getting the vote it wants then this will strengthen the argument of Plaid Cymru, which has replicated the SNP’s model and called for a vote on Welsh independence.

Plaid Cymru and the Greens could also provide support to a Labour government, but these smaller parties will only come into play if the election result is extremely tight. The SNP, followed by the Liberal Democrats, are Labour’s best chance of getting into Number 10 if there is a hung parliament.

If Labour forms a coalition government then this will lead to a second referendum on Brexit, but raise the tempo behind the Remain campaign. It will encourage the softest form of Brexit imaginable, which in turn will encourage people to vote Remain. If the coalition can agree, then the EU are likely to accommodate another extension to hold the referendum – but only if there is a clear path to resolve Brexit once and for all. This means the coalition must be firmly united on all fronts to convince the EU that the UK isn’t stuck in another parliamentary rut.

Brexit: all options are on the table

Somehow, we find ourselves back where we started after more than three years of debate and division. The election is supposed to provide a clear path to resolving Brexit once and for all, but it has brought every possibility back into the fold. Remain, Leave and everything in between is back on the table.

Stocks to watch as UK general election kicks off

The biggest threat is that this election fails to change the parliamentary arithmetic, and we end up where we are now. A hung parliament would introduce further uncertainty and the possibility of a parliament that is still unable to agree on where Brexit goes next. Right now, all of the major parties have said they are unwilling to work with one another whatever the result of the election, but it is safe to say the mood will change if no single party gets a majority and Brexit remains in the balance.

To summarise:

  • A Conservative majority would lead to Brexit being delivered soon after the election based on the deal struck in October.
  • A Conservative-Brexit Party coalition could see them pursue Johnson’s deal but puts it at risk, heightening the chance of a harder Brexit and possibly putting no-deal back on the table
  • A Labour majority would lead to the UK asking for another extension from the EU so a second referendum can be held, offering a choice of Remain and a new Brexit deal that the party would hope to strike within three months of being elected. No deal would be off the table, but it is unclear how the EU would respond to Labour’s plan.
  • A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition would likely lead to a second referendum as Labour has planned, but will undoubtedly result in Labour campaigning for Remain. It could result in an even softer form of Brexit being offered in the referendum.
  • A Labour-SNP coalition would also lead to a second referendum, again favouring the Remain side, but will come with the caveat that Scotland gets another vote on independence.

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Trading around Brexit

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