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After historic UK election, what’s next for Brexit?

British prime minister Theresa May and her husband Philip May arrive back at 10 Downing Street in London, following a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, in which she asked to form a new government. Photo by Ben Cawthra/ Sipa via AP Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May and her Conservative Party failed to win a parliamentary majority in Britain’s snap election last week, leaving the country with what’s known as a “hung parliament.” But May, who called for the vote earlier this year in order to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations, has vowed to “lead Britain forward,” joining forces with the Democratic Unionist Party, which won 10 seats in the election, to form a new government.

We asked European politics expert Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science at Northeastern, to explain how the outcome might impact the future of Britain and its impending exit from the European Union.

May called for the snap vote, believing that it would give her a stronger mandate before Brexit negotiations begin later this month, but she miscalculated and suffered a humiliating defeat instead. Where did she go wrong?

There were problems with her campaign style as well as the policies she put forward. In terms of her campaign, she was rather inaccessible to the voting public. She refused to debate Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn; she didn’t hold big events to explain her plans for the country; and she came across as a bit robotic, tending to reuse the same catch phrases over and over again. In terms of her policies, she revealed nothing about her strategy for Britain to leave the EU. When she did talk, she focused more on domestic policies, some of which were pretty controversial. For instance, she caused a ruckus over her proposal to impose a so-called “dementia tax” on residents who receive long-term care at home, and advocated for continued austerity, with which people are getting fed up. Corbyn, for his part, offered a much more hopeful plan, campaigning on increasing government spending for jobs, social programs, and security. He also came across as surprisingly charismatic, which helped to galvanize the youth vote.

How might the outcome of the snap vote impact Britain’s exit from the EU?

That’s really what’s on everyone’s minds right now. The way I see it, there are two possibilities. One possibility is that May holds onto power and continues to pursue a hard Brexit, meaning that she would fully remove the UK from any participation in the common market including the free movement of people. This, in my opinion, would make the whole process even less democratic, because her mandate is now much weaker than it was before the election. The other possibility is that May will be forced to step down or change her governing strategy by working to secure a softer Brexit, which is what it seems the electorate wants. A softer Brexit would mean that the UK would try to retain some elements of participation in the common market and continue cooperating with the EU in other areas, such as security. In realistic terms, the UK’s role in the world and ability to prosper economically would be severely undermined by a hard exit.

I think May herself plans to stay in power for the foreseeable future. If she were going to step down, she would have done so after the results of the election had been revealed. However, I think she should resign, and there are increasing calls for her to do so. The election’s outcome shows a lack of confidence in her party. While the Conservative Party did receive the most votes, it was only about 2 percent more than the Labour Party, which was expected to lose by about 20 percent when the election was called for, just two months ago. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned from the outcome of this election, it’s that the UK public has shifted to the left, propelling the Labour Party forward.

Why, in your opinion, did the Democratic Unionist Party strike a deal with the Conservative Party to form a new government? What do you think the DUP will want from the Tories in exchange for their support?

Given that the public has clearly shifted to the left, it didn’t make sense for the Tories to form an alliance with a socially conservative party in Ireland. But I think the two parties ended up connecting for three reasons: The DUP is in favor of Brexit; it votes along conservative lines; and it didn’t want to be ruled by a Labour government. At the same time, there are differences between what the DUP wants and what May wants. Clearly, the DUP’s primary platform is to keep Northern Ireland in the UK while making sure that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland remains open, suggesting that the DUP is in favor of a softer exit from the EU. In the end, the only real impact of the alliance might be just that: to soften the UK stance on Brexit.