16/06/2017 How does the outcome of the General Election affect the legal profession?

How does the outcome of the General Election affect the legal profession?

The exit poll at 10:01pm on Thursday 8 June certainly threw up some interesting surprises. As the night wore on, it became clear that Theresa May’s hopes of a majority had evaporated and that we were headed back to hung Parliament territory. Now that the initial excitement and sleep deprivation has worn off, and Theresa May is back in Downing Street (albeit on very shaky ground), this is a good opportunity to consider the impact of the result on the legal profession and on the country as a whole.

Most obviously, there has been a change of personnel in the cabinet. Liz Truss, the secretary of state for justice criticised for failing to defend the judges over the Article 50 case, has been replaced with David Lidington. Lidington is the fourth lord chancellor and justice secretary not to have been a lawyer before entering Parliament, and has previously voted in favour of repealing the Human Rights Act and to restrict the scope of legal aid. While government plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights have been shelved until the outcome of the Brexit negotiations become clear, Lidington’s attitudes might be crucial in determining the final formulation of human rights legislation (if he is still in post in 2019).

More broadly, the election result will have a huge impact on the Brexit negotiating process. Given the widely predicted Conservative landslide and the subsequent failure of Theresa May to even win a majority, it is likely that the only thing keeping her in place is the looming Brexit negotiations. The election was designed to give May an enhanced negotiating hand by weakening the power of dissident elements within her parliamentary party to reject the deal. This has backfired – it would now take even fewer MPs to derail the negotiations. Given the huge majority in the Commons for a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ with single market access and passporting rights for financial services, the legal profession can hope we have seen the back of the ‘no deal is a bad deal’ rhetoric, a move which would be hugely detrimental both for the City and for the wider economy.

It is difficult for any government, even one with a large majority, to get controversial and complex matters through the House of Commons. We are still not sure of the exact arrangements between the Conservative Party and the DUP, although it appears likely that there will be a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement where the DUP support the government on key votes, but no formal coalition (as in 2010-15).

The country will be left with its first minority government since 1974, where a hung parliament in the February 1974 election led to fresh elections in the October. Could there be another election this year? The Labour Party, buoyed by better than expected results, appears to think so. However, the Brexit clock is ticking. Article 50 has been activated and if there is no agreement by 2019 then we will be out on the worst possible terms. Can the country and the economy deal with another six to nine months of political manoeuvring? There is no certainty that the result would be any different, and we would be left with little over a year for the most complex set of negotiations since the Second World War. Twice in the past year the Conservative Party has plunged the country into deep uncertainty, first with Brexit and then with this general election. Can they get us out of it? Will it be a case of third time lucky? Only time will tell.

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