Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
No-one would suggest that preparations for the beginning of Brexit negotiations next week have gone smoothly. The election was clearly disappointing. We sought an increased majority from the British public but they said no. We must accept that verdict.
But we also should keep it in perspective. Labour gained 56 fewer seats than the Conservatives. We secured the highest vote share since 1983 and the most votes for any party since 1992.
Meanwhile 85 per cent of us backed pro-Brexit parties, entrenching the people’s decision in last year’s referendum to leave the European Union.
It leaves Theresa May as the only leader with the legitimacy from the British electorate to form a government. The Labour Party and the media need to accept that and we must rally behind her.
Equally, there has been a tendency to overstate the impact of the election here in Brussels. In reality there was widespread relief at the re-election of Theresa May, someone EU leaders know and respect. Her 12-point Brexit negotiating plan was welcomed for the clarity it provided when unveiled back in January and it remains the best road map to securing the best deal for the UK from the talks ahead.
Looking at the alternative, it is easy to understand why EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his team prefer to be sitting across the table from Theresa May and David Davis.
This week, while Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell accepted there was no prospect of the UK remaining in the EU single market, shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner said it remained “an open question”. Labour do not need a coalition to cause chaos: they are able to wreak havoc and confusion all by themselves.
European leaders are also less interested in the Conservatives’ failure to secure a parliamentary majority than we might think. They are used to leading minority governments – in many of their countries it is the norm – and they consider it far more important to get on with Brexit than worry about the size of the Prime Minister’s mandate. The last thing they want is any further delay.
Speaking in April, European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt was dismissive of the effect the then recently announced General Election would have on Brexit negotiations. He said: “The theory espoused by some, that Theresa May is calling a general election on Brexit in order to secure a better deal with the EU, is nonsensical.
“Will the election of more Tory MPs give Theresa May a greater chance of securing a better Brexit deal? For those sitting around the table in Brussels, this is an irrelevance.” So there we are.
What matters most when the two sides meet next week is setting the right tone. For the UK, that means making clear our desire to strike a deal that works for both sides while standing firm on fundamental principles that people voted for in the referendum – control of immigration and ensuring that British courts are not over-ruled by the European Court of Justice on issues of domestic law.
If we can maintain a climate of trust through the first few, difficult months that goal will be within our grasp. Once again, Theresa May is the right leader to achieve this, providing the continuity and strength of purpose required to see the task – possibly the most difficult faced by a post-war British Prime Minister – through to a successful conclusion.
Our role as Conservative MEPs is to assist her by offering advice where needed, using our contacts in Europe to explain the UK’s position and, at the end of the process, by voting on the eventual deal in the European Parliament. Back at Westminster, Conservative MPs must maintain discipline to ensure the opposition, whether it be Labour’s socialists or Scotland’s nationalists, is not able obstruct the process at any stage.
Our constituents expect nothing less. To borrow the Prime Minister’s phrase, let’s put the past week behind us and get to work.