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Centrists urge May to back off hard Brexit

But PM’s cabinet choices suggest Brexiteers will still dominate

Prime minister Theresa May must step back from her existing ‘all or nothing’ Brexit plan, pro-Remain Conservatives have said.

They are arguing for an approach that could keep the UK in the single market following the party’s disastrous results in the 8 June election.

The Conservatives lost 13 MPs, taking their tally to 318; Labour won 262 seats, up from 230; the Liberal Democrats won 12 seats, four more than in 2015, and the Scottish National Party obtained 35, a sharp fall from 54 in 2015. May has vowed to lead a minority Conservative government through the next five years with support from the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which won 10 seats.

Brexit secretary David Davis said on 12 June that the government would press on with plans to take the UK out of the European Union single market, as this is what the nation had decided in last year’s Brexit referendum.

But according to Ryan Shorthouse, founder and director of the centre-right think tank Bright Blue, such a position is no longer feasible. The election result, he said, means May has lost the authority to lead the country and the Conservative party.

“The hung parliament has shown that we need a new approach to Brexit, one that takes into account the economic concerns that people have. Access to the single market should be back on the table,” Shorthouse told Research Fortnight.

He is not alone in calling for a softer Brexit: the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers is said to be pushing in the same direction, along with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson, former chancellor George Osborne and former education secretary Nicky Morgan.

Mike Galsworthy, cofounder and programme director of the campaign group Scientists for EU, said that the elections should result in a wider consultation about what the country wants out of Brexit. “May wanted a big landslide so that she didn’t have to engage with other parties or the public. Now we have an open mess, but that means everyone is still involved,” he said.

Following pressure from MPs and ministers, May has appointed former work and pensions secretary Damian Green, an enthusiastic supporter of the EU, as her de facto deputy as first secretary of state and minister for the Cabinet Office. Pressure to avoid a hard Brexit is also likely to come from the DUP, which is pro-Brexit but does not want a land border in Northern Ireland.

But this is balanced by the return of pro-Brexit Michael Gove as environment secretary and fellow Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom as Commons leader, where she will need to deal with restive MPs. The three leaders of last year’s Brexit campaign, Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson also keep their former jobs.

Other former secretaries of state to retain their portfolios include Greg Clark at business, energy and industrial strategy; Justine Greening at education; Jeremy Hunt at health; and Karen Bradley at culture, media and sport.

This week the government will work against the clock to extensively rewrite its legislative programme. The loss of an overall majority now means that any contentious legislation is off the table. There will also be a delay to the original 19 June date for the Queen’s speech, which is also the date on which official Brexit negotiations are scheduled to begin.

The new House of Commons will still have a similar number of science-related representatives, but three Conservatives involved in science policy were defeated: public health minister Nicola Blackwood; Tania Mathias, member of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee; and the Conservative chairman of the Education Committee Neil Carmichael.

Jonathan Portes, economics professor at King’s College London, said of the situation, “The idea of going to negotiate Brexit with a minority government propped up by one side of the Northern Irish political spectrum is a recipe for instability at best.”

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight