The announcement of a June election raises four key issues for the Brexit process:
1. An early election does not eat into the UK’s negotiating time.
The Prime Minister triggered Article 50 in March, which notionally started the clock on a two-year negotiating window. On the face of it, taking six weeks out for a general election appears to eat into valuable negotiating time. But in truth, the negotiations are unlikely to begin in earnest until mid-to late summer when the elections in Germany and France are over. The EU and the UK are not due to finalise the structure negotiations until the European Council on 22 June in any case.
2. It is an opportunity to clarify the Prime Minister’s mandate.
Clear mandates make for strong negotiators. Mandates clearly demark what the negotiator can and cannot agree; they limit the negotiator’s ability to make concessions and so increase their bargaining power. If Theresa May uses the election and manifesto process to set out a clearer vision for what Brexit should mean – for instance, by resolving questions on the ‘customs agreement’ and the role of the European Court of Justice – and wins a majority with that position, then it will be harder for EU leaders to extract compromises on these issues. At the same time, though, that may risk a breakdown in negotiations if she feels she has less room to compromise. The impact on the UK’s negotiating strength from another party winning the election will also depend on how much detail it includes in its manifesto.
3. But an early election will eat into time taken for domestic implementation.
Brexit is not just about negotiations between the UK and the EU. The Government has a lot of work to do to prepare Whitehall to fill in the gaps left by leaving the EU. This includes a programme of legislation – headed by the Great Repeal Bill but followed by 10-15 other Brexit bills – and a series of ‘implementation projections’ on customs, immigration and so on to ensure that the UK has the systems in place to avoid a cliff-edge. During the general election, the UK enters purdah, in which much of this government business will stop. The Queen’s Speech, which had been pencilled in for mid to late May, will now be delayed and with it the start of an already tight legislative programme. That means even less time for scrutiny, whoever wins the election.
4. On the other hand, it gives the Prime Minister greater flexibility in the Brexit ‘endgame’.
Much of the work required to get the UK ready for Brexit will not be complete by April 2019, when the two-year negotiating window closes. New arrangements for customs or immigration will take time to develop. For this reason, the Government has already spoken about the need for an “implementation phase” in which new systems are gradually introduced. One challenge for the next government is that an implementation phase which starts in April 2019 will only have a year to run before the general election in 2020, at which point there would be pressure to close the implementation phase to demonstrate that Brexit was ‘complete’. By holding a general election now, Theresa May pushes the next election back to 2022. This gives the next government's implementation timelines some flexibility and aligns with the three-year transition envisaged in the EU draft guidelines.