By Tayfun Salci
After leaving behind a year where terror attacks and Brexit dominated headlines, the U.K. is ready to embrace 2018 but with a host of political uncertainties already looming.
After losing the majority in the House of Commons in a snap election in April, announced in the hope of a “strong and stable” government to get an upper hand in Brexit negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May’s survival in office was made possible thanks to a so-called “supply and confidence” deal with the Northern Ireland’s 10 unionist members of Parliament.
The Conservative Party’s deal struck with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a minority government after failing to win 326 seats already proved its fragility when the largest party in Northern Ireland stalled a deal marking “sufficient progress” in divorce talks with the EU last month. Thanks to DUP objections to clauses on future border arrangements between Ireland and Northern Ireland, the deal had to wait for a week before it could be announced -- a sign of the government’s dependency on DUP votes in further shaping Brexit strategies.
Clinging onto her seat following the disastrous snap election defeat, May also suffered when her Cabinet lost three key members in the final months of 2017.
Former Defense Secretary Michael Fallon and May’s former deputy Damian Green resigned over allegations of sexual abuse. Priti Patel, who served as minister for international development, also resigned when her unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials surfaced.
The divorce talks between the U.K. and EU will resume in the first quarter of 2018 with the second phase, focusing on future trade relations between the sides. The first phase, which lasted for about nine months, came to an end in late December after the EU said there was “sufficient progress” on three key issues: Citizens’ rights, financial settlement, and the future of the Irish border.
However, despite firm guarantees over the divorce bill and Irish border, how much the U.K. will pay to the union for the final settlement and how it will provide a “seamless border” in Ireland still has to be clarified by the U.K. government.
The rumor that Northern Ireland would stay in the single European market and Customs Union with the EU prompted Scotland and Wales to demand the same arrangements for themselves. The capital London, currently host to numerous financial institutions, followed suit, concerned over losing its status after Brexit.
The second phase of talks will concentrate on financial and trade arrangements between the U.K. and EU, but the talks are expected to be even harder at this stage as Britain is hoping to press to sign a profitable trade deal with the union -- a request that will not be easy, according to EU officials.
May’s weak hand
As the Brexit process has been shaped since the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty -- a formality to start EU exit talks -- two terms have been coined: “soft Brexit” and “hard Brexit.”
Soft Brexit defines a future relationship that would include arrangements of remaining in the European single market and the Customs Union, while hard Brexit foresees a future with ties with EU without any of the membership benefits but new trade deals with the union.
May has been on a hard Brexit page since the 2016 vote, but she has been stuck between the DUP and her party’s backbenchers, who would like to see a soft Brexit.
In a key vote last month, May was defeated with the votes of 11 MPs from her Conservative Party, giving Commons a voice over the final Brexit deal.
As the two-year transition period that will follow the Brexit date still has to be finalized with the EU, the exit date is expected to fall on March 2019, as the negotiations should come to an end in two years after Article 50 is triggered. However, this plan gives May a very tight working schedule, as the final deal will need ratification from the House of Commons and approval from European leaders by the end of 2018.
The British public’s division over Brexit continues, but 51 percent of voters would now back remaining in the EU, according to a recent poll by British daily The Independent. It said 41 percent would stick with Brexit and 8 percent are undecided. The poll showed a shift toward remaining in the EU, up from 48 percent who voted to remain in the 2016 referendum.
But despite having a number of MPs who would like to see Britain remaining in the EU, the leading Conservative Party and opposition Labour Party both officially insisted the 2016 referendum will be respected and Britain will leave the union after a 44-year membership.
The only way for a Brexit reversal seems to depend on extraordinary developments such as a government collapse and a snap election or the unlikely introduction of a second referendum.
The rise of Corbyn
In an unlikely snap election, the outcome could alter Britan’s political landscape, as the Labour Party won over more voters in last June’s election. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral victory confounded experts who saw him an extreme-left politician.
Corbyn becoming Britain’s next prime minister remains a possibility if elections are called.
In 2017, five terror attacks killed 36 people in London and Manchester. In the immediate aftermaths of two of the attacks, the terror threat level was raised to maximum, and British army troops were deployed to provide security.
Various operations were held across the U.K. through end of 2017, and numerous suspects were detained for questioning.
In a TV interview, Andrew Parker, British intelligence services’ top official, warned the British public of likely attacks in 2018 – a first by an MI5 chief.
Another potential crisis that the U.K. could face in 2018 is a state visit by U.S. President Donald Trump, which would likely cause widespread protests across the country.
The unpopular Trump was invited to the U.K. by May last January when she visited the U.S., but a petition asking Parliament to cancel such a visit was signed by nearly 2 million people. Parliament debated the issue, but the government said the invitation was extended and the visit would go ahead.
Some politicians have also balked at the visit, and Parliament Speaker John Bercow said he would not invite Trump to the House of Commons to address its members.
Originally planned for last summer, Trump’s visit has been postponed amid the backlash but he is likely to visit London for the opening of the new U.S. Embassy building in early 2018.
British reaction against Trump in office started early, with his controversial travel ban for citizens of some Muslim-majority states, and reached a peak after he re-tweeted anti-Muslim video clips by a fringe far-right organization called Britain First. May described Trump’s action as “wrong” but ruled out cancelling his visit to the U.K.
Royals’ ranks growing
Britain’s longest-ruling monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, will welcome a new grandchild in April as Prince William’s wife, the duchess of Cambridge, will give birth to her third child.
The happy occasion will be followed by a royal wedding, as Prince Harry will tie the knot with 36-year-old American actress Meghan Markle on May 19 at a chapel at Windsor Castle.