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Theresa May's failed gamble in U.K. election could mean a soft Brexit – and years of turmoil

Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at Downing Street after seeking the Queen's permission to form a government on June 9, 2017 in London, England.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May's disastrous political gamble in holding an early election has thrown Brexit into disarray less than a year after the country voted to leave the European Union.

For months Ms. May has been pursuing a "hard Brexit" strategy, calling for a complete break with the EU and replacing the ties with a Britain-EU trade deal. She called a snap election in April, convinced she would receive an overwhelming mandate for her strategy and a strengthened hand in her negotiations with the EU, which begin on June 19.

Instead, Ms. May has been badly weakened and may not survive in office much longer. Her Conservatives lost 12 seats in Thursday's election and finished eight seats short of winning a majority. She has been forced to cobble together a minority government with support of the Democratic Unionists, a small party based in Northern Ireland that won 10 seats and doesn't support her hard-Brexit strategy. She also has to face a rejuvenated Labour Party under Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who picked up 31 extra seats and also firmly rejects her Brexit plans. And she's confronting a united European Union whose leaders reacted with dismay at Britain's political upheaval but said they won't budge on the two-year deadline to negotiate the terms of Britain's departure.

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On Friday, Ms. May tried to put on a brave face on her circumstances, insisting that she plans to continue on as Prime Minister.

"This government will guide the country through the crucial Brexit talks that begin in just 10 days and deliver on the will of the British people by taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union," she said in a brief statement outside 10 Downing St. She added later that she would "reflect on the results" and figure out what went wrong.

Most analysts doubt the Tory-DUP alliance will last long and many say Ms. May will have to abandon her hard-Brexit stand and seek compromise. And that could lead to years of turmoil as Britain faces the constant threat of the government collapsing just as it negotiates Brexit with the EU.

"At any point a tiny number of either Conservatives or Democratic Unionist MPs could say 'we won't put up with this' on anything that happens," said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics. "That's exactly why she wanted a majority, so she wouldn't be at risk of small groups within Parliament undermining her capacity to govern."

Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, said on Friday that her party will work with Ms. May but won't accept her Brexit terms. "No one wants to see a hard Brexit; what we want to see is a workable plan to leave the European Union," Ms. Foster said. She is mindful that a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU during last year's Brexit referendum and there are fears in the province that Brexit could lead to the return of a hard border with Ireland. The border was eliminated as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Troubles. Business leaders and economists say any return of a frontier would be devastating to the economies of Ireland and Northern Ireland because they are so entwined.

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Mr. Corbyn has also called for a soft Brexit, saying Britain must remain in the European single market, which provides for the free flow of goods, services and people. And he's made it clear that he believes Ms. May has lost all credibility on Brexit. "The arguments the Conservative Party put forward in this election have lost, and we need to change," he said, adding that Ms. May should "make way for a government that will be truly representative."

Mr. Corbyn can claim much vindication for Thursday's election result. While Labour didn't manage to defeat the Tories, the party did far better than expected and swept away internal worries about Mr. Corbyn's leadership. His pitch on Brexit as well as his call to tax the rich, provide free university tuition for students and nationalize key services such as railways resonated across the country, particularly with younger people. The turnout by young voters was 12 percentage points higher than in the last election in 2015 and 66 per cent of those aged 18-24 said they voted Labour. That made a difference in a number of close ridings.

Other party leaders also called on Ms. May to go. "It is simply inconceivable that the Prime Minister can begin the Brexit negotiations in just two weeks' time," said Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, which won 12 seats and also doesn't support Ms. May's hard Brexit. "She should consider her future – and then, for once, she should consider the future of our country."

Some business groups welcomed the election result, saying the move away from Ms. May's hard-Brexit position will be a relief to many companies that feared losing unfettered access to the EU market. "The chances of getting a better deal have gone up," said Roland Rudd, chairman of Open Britain, a London-based organization that has campaigned for more trade and business ties with the EU. "This is the first time since the [EU] referendum for us to have a much better relationship with Europe."

Across the EU, leaders reacted with caution to Thursday's election results but also had words of warning about the timing of the Brexit negotiations. The EU has insisted that the talks must be completed within two years and they have said Britain must first cover all of the financial costs associated with leaving, such as continuing pension obligations. Those costs could run as high as €100-billion, or $150-billion.

"The time for Brexit negotiations is getting tight," Germany's EU commissioner Guenther Oettinger said Friday. He added that the talks have to be finished by October next year to provide enough time for EU countries to ratify any agreement.

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Added EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker: "As far as the Commission is concerned, we can open negotiations tomorrow morning at half past 9. So we are waiting for visitors coming from London. I hope that we will not experience further delay in the conclusion of these negotiations."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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