What is Brexit?
In late June 2016, Ms. May announced her intent to lead the Conservative Party replacing David Cameron. Cameron resigned after a majority of voters to leave the EU. May stressed the importance of unity within the party despite feelings on Brexit, saying she could bring “strong leadership” and a “positive vision” for the country’s future. May, who previously opposed Brexit, insisted that there would be no second referendum, saying: “The campaign was fought… and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door… Brexit means Brexit”.
The United Kingdom joined the European Union in 1973, when it was called the European Economic Community. Britain spent the following four decades as an influential participant in the affairs of the group. The country’s history, international profile, and economy suggest that it should seek to stay as close as possible to the E.U. after its departure. Conversely, its people have asked to be free. In calls for Brexit, which was led by anti-E.U. populists, such as Nigel Farage, the call was for the U.K. to “take back control,” and to regain its distinctive identity in the world.
Those who know May describe her as cautious, but her political career has been defined by acts of boldness, often on behalf of unpopular causes, or in the face of seemingly impossible circumstances. But she happens to be the leader of the United Kingdom—a divided nation of sixty-five million people, Europe’s second-largest economy, and America’s closest ally—as it chooses how it wants to proceed in the world. This summer, that choice, which is frankly overwhelming, came to rest with May. Britain waited and watched. May made her call, and then her government more or less exploded..
May opposed Brexit. Unlike many Conservatives, she never developed a theological conviction, either way, about the European Union. It was ungainly, but it was there. “She thinks it is a bit of a ridiculous debate,” a former aide said. It is easy to sympathize with her, because of the extreme views of some of her colleagues and the formidable nature of the task that she faces. “There is a question about whether anyone can do this,” the former Cabinet colleague said. But May’s reluctance to share what she is thinking has made her an erratic leader. In her first year in office, with little consultation, May adopted a hard-line approach to Brexit, which appeased the anti-E.U. wing of her party but startled governments across the Continent. In the spring of 2017, May called and ran a disastrous general election, in which she sought to reorient the Conservative Party toward struggling, middle-class voters, many of whom had voted for Brexit, and to strengthen her mandate in Parliament. But, instead of adding to the Conservatives’ slender majority in the House of Commons, which Cameron had won two years earlier, she lost it. May barely survived; for the past year, she has been forced to rely on the votes of the small, far-right Democratic Unionist Party, from Northern Ireland, in order to pass key legislation in Westminster.
May has had the difficult tasks of balancing two conflicting demands: to respect the democratic impulse of Brexit while limiting the economic consequences. May’s best hope has been to lessen the damage on all sides. Between 2016 and 2018, Britain went from being the fastest-growing major economy in the world to the slowest, as businesses halted investment plans, migration dwindled, and foreboding filled the air. The government’s own estimates show that every form of Brexit will make people worse off, ranging from a relatively modest impact, if the country ends up somehow entwined in the E.U.—and thereby less free—to a cost of around eight per cent of G.D.P., if it leaves with no formal deal at all.
After the election, May’s premiership became even more strained and subdued. Several of her closest advisers resigned, leaving her further isolated. Once the formal Brexit negotiations with the E.U. began, last June, ministers and officials bemoaned the absence of a leader’s voice.
Given the complexity of Brexit and the sullen, split views of the population, it would have been easy for Britain to spend years in a kind of post-referendum purgatory. But one of the banal cruelties of the E.U. is that it has a rule for everything. Under the legal process of leaving the bloc, known as Article 50, which May triggered on March 29, 2017, Britain will leave the E.U. on March 29th of next year. Any agreement on the U.K.’s future status must be ratified by the British Parliament, the E.U.’s institutions, and governments across Europe, so the sides have been working toward a deal by the end of October.
As Prime Minister, May immediately established two new government departments: Dexeu, to manage the Brexit process; and the Department of International Trade, to explore economic opportunities outside the E.U. Dexeu was given offices at 9 Downing Street, the former premises of the court of the Privy Council. In their first weeks, civil servants worked in the docks and on the benches of the old courtroom as they grappled with the scale of Brexit. “People were saying, ‘How does the U.K. fishing industry work? How does the U.K. automotive industry work?’ ” the senior official told me. “You were getting papers saying, ‘There are lots of fish in English waters.’ Literally, they were at the most basic level.”
From the top of government, however, there was silence. During her short campaign, May had coined the phrase “Brexit means Brexit,” to indicate that she would honor the result of the referendum. But she said little more. Soon after May appointed her first Cabinet, in which she named Johnson Foreign Secretary, M.P.s and senior officials began to leave for their summer vacations. “I thought, This is very odd,” the former minister told me. “Why are we all going away, when there is a sort of national crisis going on? You know, where are the meetings?” Aides in Downing Street noticed a similar absence of activity. “I expected to find the government completely obsessed with dealing with Brexit. Actually, that wasn’t what was happening at any level,” one of them said.
For the first months of May’s premiership, there was a Brexit meeting in her office on Wednesday afternoons, attended by around a dozen senior officials. Timothy and Hill had joined May as her chiefs of staff. Because of the fractious state of the Cabinet, which was split between Brexiteers and Remainers, and the feverish media attention, Timothy and Hill sought to keep access tightly controlled. Senior civil servants, who were used to boisterous meetings in Cameron’s Downing Street, were struck by the formality and quietness of working with May. “She just says, ‘Tell me more,’ ” the former civil servant told me. “So you spiel.” Ministers came to suspect that the true decision-making circle was even smaller, with Timothy—who was strongly pro-Brexit—shaping the policy. “The Brexit group never grew,” the former Cabinet colleague told me. “Because it was Nick and her.” (Timothy denies this.)
May presented her thinking in the form of speeches. In her first major address on Brexit, at the Conservative Party conference in early October, 2016, May made it clear that Britain would no longer accept unlimited immigration. Given that free movement is a condition of being part of the single market—and accepted by non-E.U. members such as Switzerland and Norway—the speech indicated that the U.K. would seek a decisive break.
May declared, “The authority of E.U. law in Britain will end.” The line sounded technical, but it caused great shock outside the U.K. Withdrawing from the European Court of Justice meant that May intended to take Britain out of more or less every regulatory mechanism devised by the bloc, from drug safety to aviation rules. Senior officials working on Brexit were also astonished: there had not yet been a detailed discussion of the E.C.J. with May and her team. “They didn’t know what it meant,” the civil servant told me. The pound fell sharply, and European governments began calling, trying to decipher May’s intentions. “You think, Oh fuck. This is going to be fun in Brussels.”
That morning, May had also announced that she would trigger Article 50 by the end of March, 2017, which would put in place the two-year deadline for the country’s exit. The Prime Minister’s political staff were adamant that she activate the clause soon, to show the nation that Brexit was happening. But British officials familiar with the E.U.’s processes argued for delay. By starting the clock before the government had fully defined what it wanted Brexit to look like, May risked giving the E.U. an inherent advantage in the negotiations—time would always be against her. Diplomats insisted that some informal bargaining was possible before the technical talks began. “You need to go around Europe,” the senior official explained. “Sit down with Merkel and Macron and say, ‘This is our vision, O.K.? Do you guys buy it?’ You figure out where your landing area is. Then you trigger Article 50.” Sir Ivan Rogers, the U.K.’s permanent representative to the E.U., and Oliver Robbins, the civil servant in charge of Dexeu, were given twenty-four hours’ notice of May’s announcement. Both objected; both were overruled.
In May’s first six months in Downing Street, she intimated a form of Brexit that would give the U.K. looser bonds with the E.U. than Iceland and Turkey have. Her speeches carried enormous implications for the way that British life was organized. Ministers who had voted to keep the country in the E.U. were dismayed by their lack of access to the Prime Minister.
By late 2016, May’s approach to Brexit was causing rifts at the top of government. Philip Hammond, who had succeeded George Osborne as Chancellor, was alarmed about the potential impact of May’s decisions on the economy. On January 3, 2017, Rogers, the U.K.’s senior diplomat at the E.U., resigned when his relationship with May and her team broke down. Two weeks later, May gave her speech at Lancaster House, a splendid Foreign Office residence a few hundred yards from Buckingham Palace, in which she confirmed that she would take Britain out of the bloc’s single market and its customs union. It was a bright winter day. May spoke in the Long Gallery, facing a portrait of Queen Victoria on horseback. She promised to walk away from the Brexit negotiations if they were not to her liking. “No deal for Britain,” she said, “would be better than a bad deal.”
The Brexit negotiations began eleven days later. Instead of travelling to Brussels buoyed by an election win, May’s government was weak and fragmented. In the aftermath of the election, Dexeu had lost two of its four ministers: one resigned, the other was fired. A photograph from the second day of the talks, at the European Commission’s headquarters, showed the E.U.’s negotiating team, led by Michel Barnier, a former French Foreign Affairs Minister, facing David Davis, May’s Brexit Secretary, and a pair of British officials across a pale-green glass table. The E.U.’s side was covered with papers; the Brits had a single, slender notebook among them.
The first subject of the talks was how the negotiations would be structured: the U.K. wanted to discuss the nation’s exit from the E.U. in parallel with its future relationship, to allow trade-offs between the two. The E.U. refused, insisting that Britain’s withdrawal must be finalized before it would consider anything else. The sequencing of the talks, alongside the ticking clock of Article 50, added to the E.U.’s leverage, which it has used to delay and extract concessions ever since. After a year of negotiations, Britain’s withdrawal has still not been formally agreed; it is stuck mainly on the question of the Irish border and customs arrangements. Discussions on the “future framework” for the two-hundred-and-ninety-billion-pound trading relationship between the two sides began only this May. “I have lots of friends on the other side of the table,” a former British official in Brussels told me. “But they are fairly ruthless negotiators, and they are fucking us over.”
On 4 December 2018, the May Government was found in contempt of Parliament; the first government to be found in contempt in history on a motion passed by MPs by 311 to 293 votes. The vote was triggered by the government failing to lay before Parliament any legal advice on the proposed withdrawal agreement on the terms of the UK’s departure from the European Union, after a humble address for a return was unanimously agreed to by the House of Commons on 13 November 2018. The government then agreed to publish the full legal advice for Brexit that was given to the Prime Minister by the Attorney General during negotiations with the European Union.