May’s political troubles sow Brexit confusion, undermines economy

A trader pauses while monitoring financial data on computer screens at ETX Capital, a broker of contracts-for-difference, in London, U.K. on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016.
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A trader pauses while monitoring financial data on computer screens at ETX Capital, a broker of contracts-for-difference, in London, U.K. on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016.

It is now just over a year since the UK's non-binding referendum vote to extricate itself from the European Union. And in the 12 months since, amid electoral surprises, incessant speculation and endless political posturing, the British economy has not - by some measures - performed particularly well.

The most recent public data shows the worst contraction in real disposable household income for 40 years. The pound - which plummeted last year after the vote - has stubbornly continued to trade at a comparatively low level against a basket of global currencies. And more than two weeks since the start of the breathtakingly complex Brexit negotiations between Britain and Brussels, investors have gained little fresh insight into any concrete proposals on the table, just as an unstable new reality takes shape in British politics.

This past week Britain's Conservatives, the wounded but still most sizeable political party in the U.K.'s House of Commons, sealed a nakedly short-term pact with a handful of representatives from the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.

In return for DUP votes that will help pass key measures in parliament, Theresa May's Conservatives promised roughly £1 billion ($1.3 billion) in extra spending over two years for various projects in Northern Ireland, population 1.8 million.

The British press - never shy about using witty but caustic headlines - slammed the deal and Theresa May in equal measure, describing it as a "squalid...£1bn bribe to crackpots" that had been sealed with a "handshake of shame" by a leader "held to ransom."

The conventional wisdom in Westminster - and indeed Brussels - is that May gambled by calling a snap general election in March, and lost. Her ostensible pretext for calling the election was to win a stronger mandate for Brexit negotiations. She would theoretically command greater respect from her European peers during talks as a prime minister that had been democratically elected by a majority of citizens, rather than just anointed by her party.

And at home, a larger parliamentary majority could also help her face down or simply ignore potentially recalcitrant members of her own party, who might take a different view on Brexit-related policy positions during important votes.

In the first few roll-calls since the opening of the latest parliamentary session, May's measures have squeaked through by a tiny margin, but the government has been forced to make some significant and embarrassing concessions to stave off criticism about its new political bedfellows, whose social policies in particular are viewed unfavourably by many British liberals.

During recent reporting visits to Brussels and Luxembourg, several interviews with European leaders - from EU commissioners to Baltic premiers to Teutonic finance ministers - have revealed a certain level of Schadenfreude directed at May's recent electoral and parliamentary travails.

A major challenge for her ever since the referendum - and for as long as she can maintain her currently tenuous grip on the keys to Number 10 Downing Street - has been the requirement for each public utterance on Brexit to address several very different constituencies at once.

There is the emotive domestic audience that seems eager to assert unrealistically hardline controls over U.K. immigration policy; the significant minority of British voters that would prefer not to exit the EU at all and hunts assiduously for any indication that the self-titled "Project Leave" will somehow crumble; the businesses and investors across the country who are frustrated and even exasperated at the lack of clarity about the government's end-game; and finally the politicians and bureaucrats across the English Channel who frequently reference their unified negotiating positions but cannot help themselves - it seems - from sending occasionally mixed messages.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, told CNBC recently that he has yet to get a clear idea of the kind of Brexit the British government is seeking, but that Theresa May's opening offer on the rights of EU citizens did not go far enough. Meanwhile his colleague Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, has indicated he dreams of Britain's return to the European fold, and French President Emmanuel Macron - days before talks began - said the "door remains open" until the end of the two year negotiating timetable.

Economists in Britain and Europe have of course expressed a similarly varied range of views when it comes to predicting the short, medium and long-term impacts of Brexit. But many of them quite reasonably continue to caution that until March 2019, in the absence of confirmed details on the terms of the U.K.'s departure, accurate economic forecasting will prove difficult.

Christine Lagarde in a recent conversation underlined to me the need for both sides to seek clarity as early as possible during the ongoing talks.

"What is more predictable, more certain, can be calibrated, can be anticipated, can be transitioned into, is going to be more reliable and safer for the people and for the economy," she insisted. That assessment may apply equally to Britain and Europe.

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