Theresa May could be forced out of office by her own party if she pushes for a hard Brexit, according to a pro-European think tank.
The Centre for European Reform (CER) warned the Prime Minister would now have to take into account the views of pro-Europeans in her party during Brexit negotiations – or face a vote of no confidence.
The dissolving of May’s majority means anti-Brexit Tory MPs are now in a stronger position to put pressure on the PM to avoid a so-called ‘hard Brexit’.
Tory MP Anna Soubry, who has suggested her party leader should resign, vowed to carry on fighting for the UK to stay in the Single Market – something May has previously ruled out.
Other Tories believe a hard Brexit is now more likely as Brussels will demand an unacceptably high price for keeping any Single Market benefits.
Simon Tilford, deputy director of CER, rejected that analysis, and said: “I think that assumes Theresa May could - with no majority in the Commons - walk away from the negotiations.
“I think there will be a vote of no confidence if she does that.”
Tilford believes that in order to appease the pro-Europeans in her party, May may have to perform u-turns on previously stated negotiating goals.
He said: “I think the possibility of staying in the customs union could increase.
“Whether it could eventually mean Britain not leaving the EU at all its too early to tell. If we see another election and the Labour Party feels able to campaign on an wholly anti-Brexit platform, then there is an outside chance.”
Soubry, one of the most resolutely pro-EU Tory MPs, was certainly in no mood to rein in her opposition to a hard Brexit.
She told HuffPost UK: “I will continue to make the case for the Single Market and the benefits of immigration.”
Her words were echoed by Roland Rudd, Chairman of the pro-EU Open Britain campaign. He said: “The Government sought a direct mandate for the hardest of hard Brexits. That mandate clearly does not exist.
“On the contrary, it is clear that the only way forward that can unite our country is through a repudiation of the hard Brexit agenda.
“In the new Parliament, pro-Europeans of all parties must take this golden opportunity to pull together and fight to keep Britain an open, tolerant, prosperous country.
“That means membership of the Single Market and Customs Union; a fair deal for EU citizens living in the UK; the maintenance of our close security links with Europe; and a refusal to even countenance a Brexit with no deal at all.”
Brexit became a non-issue in the election because Labour neutralised Brexit. Tory MP James Cleverly
Yet while Soubry, along with colleagues including Nicky Morgan and Ken Clarke, will fight against the UK leaving the EU without a deal, there are plenty still on the Tory benches who would be more than happy for that scenario.
John Redwood, Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone are all Brexit campaigners who see the ‘no deal’ outcome as perfectly acceptable.
Another Tory Brexiteer, Braintree MP James Cleverly, does not think the election result will have a drastic impact on the final deal with the EU.
May is set to be propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party, which supports leaving the Single Market and ending the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – two characteristics of a ‘hard Brexit’.
Cleverly believes this common cause with the Prime Minister means she won’t have to depart radically from her Brexit goals announced in the Lancaster House speech in January.
Besides, even if the DUP and a handful of pro-EU Tories do decide to vote against Brexit measures, the Labour Party has publicly committed to supporting them.
Cleverly said: “The big thing with all of this is Brexit became a non-issue in the election because Labour neutralised Brexit.
“They said in the campaign: ‘We are leaving the Single Market, we are ending freedom of movement and leaving the customs union.’
“If they start getting obstructive we would say: ‘We said we would do these three things and so did you.’”
Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman – a key behind-the-scenes player in the Leave campaign in the EU referendum – is more confident the UK will leave all Brussels institutions thanks to the election result.
He is “very optimistic” that a “genuine Brexit” could now be achieved, and said: “There’s some evidence that the desire to have a huge majority was in part to allow more flexibility over Brexit.
“I don’t think the trade negotiations are going to be affected very much.
“A lot of the these negotiations will only come back to Parliament when we get a deal.”
Across the channel, European leaders are keen to crack on with the negotiations – with the first round of talks set to take place on June 19.
In a letter to May, European Council President Donald Tusk insisted there is “no time to lose” when it comes to the Brexit talks, and added: “I am fully committed to maintaining regular and close contact at our level to facilitate the work of our negotiators.”
The EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier echoed that sentiment, tweeting:
The EU will no doubt feel in a stronger position in the negotiations now, and therefore will try to extract more concessions in a free trade deal as the UK parliament is much more unlikely to sanction a ‘no deal’.
This could include a membership fee and even keeping some form of freedom of movement in exchange for tariff-free access to the Single Market.
Speaking on a German radio station, Europe’s Budget Commissioner Gunther Oettinger warned that a weaker UK could lead to slower negotiations – something which could be of an advantage to the EU.
He said that in negotiations, “a weaker partner weakens the whole thing”, whereas if both sides in a negotiation were strong, “you get results more quickly”.