The British Election That Somehow Made Brexit Even Harder

LONDON — What a mess.

Britain was supposed to wake up on Friday with the political clarity, finally, to begin formal negotiations to leave the European Union, a process scheduled to start in 10 days.

Instead, the country is staring at a hung Parliament and a deeply damaged Prime Minister Theresa May, her authority and credibility fractured by her failure to maintain her Conservative Party’s majority in Parliament.

Ignoring demands that she resign, the prime minister said on Friday that she would cling to power by forming a minority government with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.

Because the Conservatives won the most seats and the most votes, Mrs. May gets the first chance to form a new government, despite winning only 318 seats, 12 fewer than in 2015, and short of a formal majority of 326 in the 650-seat House of Commons. The Democratic Unionists won 10.

But minority governments tend to be fragile and short-lived, and many expect that Mrs. May will be a lame-duck prime minister, that she may not last as long as a year and that she will not lead her party into another election.

For European Union leaders, who were expecting her to emerge with a reinforced majority, the uncertainty is unwelcome, especially as they try to prioritize issues such as climate change and their relationship with an unpredictable and unfriendly President Trump. There is also resentment that, once again, the British have complicated things out of political hubris and partisan self-interest.

Mrs. May called the snap election three years early — and her decision backfired. So did the decision by her predecessor, David Cameron, who called the referendum on European Union membership in the first place.

“I thought surrealism was a Belgian invention,” said Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium who is the European Parliament’s chief coordinator on Britain’s exit from the bloc. “Yet another own goal: after Cameron, now May.”

Without question now, Britain is not ready for the negotiations, having spent the past year largely avoiding a real debate on the topic, other than a vague argument over the merits of a “hard Brexit” (as a clean break from the European Union is known), versus a “soft Brexit,” which would require more compromise.

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain addressed the news media outside 10 Downing Street in London on Friday, announcing plans to form a minority government. CreditTim Ireland/Associated Press

Brussels, by contrast, has a negotiating team led by a former European commissioner, Michel Barnier, and it has published detailed negotiating guidelines, agreed upon by the bloc’s 27 other member states. While Britain seems more divided, the European Union appears to have achieved unusual unity.

And the “Brexit” clock is ticking. On Friday morning, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, warned that London faced a firm deadline to complete talks – March 2019 — and that any delay raised the risk of failing to reach a deal.

“We don’t know when Brexit talks start. We know when they must end,” Mr. Tusk wrote on Twitter. “Do your best to avoid a ‘no deal’ as result of ‘no negotiations.’”

Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, ran what political analysts regard as an excellent and optimistic campaign, promising an end to austerity, more money for health and social welfare and free tuition. Labour gained 29 seats to reach 261, with one seat left to decide. But that would still leave it far short of a majority, even in combination with other sympathetic parties, especially since the Scottish National Party lost 21 of its 56 seats, a serious blow to its goal of Scotland’s independence.

Only a year ago, the vote on European Union membership had seemingly divided the country along clear lines between “Leave” and “Remain.” The vote on Thursday erased such clarity, delivering mixed messages, even as Britain remained deeply split — by region, class and generation.

Mrs. May’s Conservative Party lost its majority but still won the most seats, doing particularly well in constituencies that backed withdrawal from the European Union, while the revitalized Labour Party did better in urban seats that were opposed to leaving the bloc.

“After this election, there’s no mandate for the hard Brexit the prime minister put forward — but there’s no mandate to abandon Brexit either,” said Peter Ricketts, a former ambassador to France and now an independent member of the House of Lords, Britain’s upper chamber. “With no majority in Parliament, the government’s negotiating position just got weaker.”

Mrs. May’s challenge will be to form a coherent Brexit position that can command support from a much more diverse set of legislators, said Gus O’Donnell, a former cabinet secretary and member of the House of Lords.

He noted that the Democratic Unionists will have their own interests about a post-Brexit relationship with Ireland, including border and customs regulations. Conservative legislators from Scotland, on whom Mrs. May will also depend, will urge her to try to retain access to the single market of the European Union, which Mrs. May previously rejected.

“Remember, she’s still got lots of hard-line Brexiters in her own party who don’t want to stay in the single market, want to move away from the European Court of Justice and don’t want to pay any money to the E.U.,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “She’s got to try to bring all that together.”

Eric Pickles, a former chairman of the Conservative Party, said that while Mrs. May was likely to stay on as prime minister, the government’s negotiating strategy might have to be refined.

“I think we now have to build a grand coalition of support,” he said. “I don’t see how realistic it is now to be leaving the single market and the customs union – but there is leaving and leaving, and it is going to be up to negotiations.”

The Democratic Unionists are the harder-line, mainly Protestant party in Northern Ireland and support Brexit. And they are particularly committed to keeping Mr. Corbyn out of power because of his history of sympathy with Irish Republicans, including Sinn Fein, which was the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

Arlene Foster, leader of the D.U.P., said that she had spoken to Mrs. May, “but I think it is too soon to talk about what we’re going to do.” She said she would explore with Mrs. May “how we can help bring stability to our nation.”

But earlier Friday, Mrs. Foster was not optimistic about the tenure of Mrs. May, saying, “It will be difficult for her to survive given that she was presumed at the start of the campaign, which seems an awfully long time ago, to come back with maybe a hundred, maybe more, in terms of her majority.”

Mrs. May is certain to face demands from lawmakers in her own party that she change her leadership style and consult more widely. Nigel Evans, a senior Conservative lawmaker, blamed the party’s manifesto, which had been prepared by a small group and hit traditional Tory supporters. “We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot; we shot ourselves in the head,” he told the BBC.

For the past year, the debate about the exit from the European Union in Britain has been limited to vague promises of repatriating British funds from the European budget, controlling immigration and negotiating a favorable trade deal. Britons have heard little about the cost of leaving the world’s biggest free-trade bloc — not least the tens of billions of pounds owed to Brussels for existing liabilities such as pension obligations and investment commitments in the current European Union budget.

“The British public have not at all been prepared for having to pay a large check to Brussels to settle our debts in this divorce,” Mr. Ricketts said.

Arlene Foster, center, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, with her deputy, Nigel Dodds, left, in Belfast on Friday morning. CreditNiall Carson/Press Association, via Associated Press

Mrs. May told voters that she wanted to start negotiating a trade deal immediately — something categorically ruled out by the 27 countries on the other side of the table. They want to talk about a divorce settlement first: about the rights of European Union citizens in Britain, and of Britons in Europe (doable, officials say); about the border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which remains a member of the bloc (trickier — especially if Northern Irish unionists became king makers); and about the most contentious issue in any divorce: the money.

Only when “sufficient progress” has been made on these issues, the European Union says, can the talks move on toward a framework for a future trade deal and to designing a transitional agreement that would bridge the end of British membership in the bloc — March 2019 — until a final deal is ratified by the other 27 states.

Even before talks have started, the trust level is weak. A dinner Mrs. May had with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, was leaked in astonishing detail to a German newspaper by Mr. Juncker’s team. The leaks were widely condemned by officials — but their content was described as accurate.

Mrs. May had described her vision of a post-Brexit Britain in much the same way she did to her country’s voters: prosperous, open to the world, and closely intertwined with Europe’s single market — the status quo, but without the open borders, the budget contributions and the oversight of the European Court of Justice. “Let us make ‘Brexit’ a success,” she said at the dinner.

The next day, after a call from Mr. Juncker, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany gave a speech in Parliament. “I have a feeling that a few Britons are deluding themselves,” she said. “That, however, is a waste of time.”

“There is no desire to punish Britain,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a former adviser to the German president and now director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. But for the European Union to remain a viable and attractive club, leaving it must come at a cost, he said. “There has to be a difference between being in and being out.”

Since taking over as prime minister last July, Mrs. May has talked incessantly about the exit from the European Union, while saying very little of substance. Repeating that “Brexit means Brexit” and that she would “make a success of Brexit,” the prime minister presented herself to voters as the person to get the best deal for Britain — but without defining the deal.

The Evening Standard, a London newspaper edited by a Conservative former chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, published 10 questions a month ago about the exit from the European Union, challenging the government to answer them. Among them: How is the withdrawal going to increase trade after leaving the biggest free-trading bloc in the world? How is market access for London’s financial services industry going to be secured? How is migration supposed to be cut to the tens of thousands when no one can identify the businesses whose labor supply will be restricted?

“Not one of these questions has been even addressed, let alone answered, by the main political parties in this election,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial on the eve of the vote. “As a result, it provides no mandate for the details of Brexit.”

In any case, officials say, the mandate matters less than the balance of power at the negotiating table in Brussels.

“We have a weak hand of cards,” said one senior British official, who requested anonymity to discuss the government’s position “The E.U.’s hand is much stronger.”

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