Theresa May has now been in office six months as of Friday, Jan. 13, and it has become increasingly clear that Britain’s departure from the E.U. will be the defining issue of her first term — and possibly even her career.
May came to power directly because of Brexit; her predecessor David Cameron resigned after voters chose on June 23, 2016, to leave the E.U. Her rivals in a short-lived leadership race quickly faded away, and by July 11 it was clear she would be the U.K.’s next Premier. Two days later, Queen Elizabeth II made it official.
Here’s how Brexit has dominated the Prime Minister’s first six months in power:
Brexit means Brexit
Theresa May is confirmed as Prime Minister on July 13. In a speech outside 10 Downing Street, she attempts to reassure people who voted to leave the E.U. with a promise to make Britain “a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.”
She appoints prominent Euroskeptics Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox to help take Britain out of the union. Johnson is made Foreign Secretary while Davis and Fox are established in two new Cabinet positions: respectively, Secretary of State for Leaving the European Union and Secretary of State for International Trade. The Economist says the move “cannily reduces the chance of a single Brexiteer emerging as a rival if the process’s outcome disappoints the diehard Leavers.”
May keeps mum
May tells Parliament on Sept. 7 that she will give “no running commentary” on Brexit negotiations, refusing to shed light on whether Britain will remain in the E.U.’s single market. This comes after May distanced herself from Davis’ suggestion that it was “very improbable” the U.K. can regain control of immigration while in the single market.
Concerns begin to mount that Cabinet lawmakers are confused about official Brexit policy, Sky News reports.
The definite Article
May announces in a speech at the Conservative Party conference on Oct. 2 in Birmingham that she will trigger Article 50 of the E.U.’s Lisbon Treaty — which officially kick-starts the two-year process of leaving the bloc — by the end of March. Article 50 will allow E.U. and British officials to begin formal talks on what the U.K.’s relationship will be with the economic bloc.
May hints at a clean break from the E.U., saying that while she wants British companies to have “the maximum freedom” to work in the single market, it should not be at the expense of losing the right to curb immigration to the U.K.
“Let me be clear, we are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again,” she said. “We are going to be a fully independent, sovereign country — a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts.”
Markets are spooked by the suggestion of a so-called “hard Brexit” — a complete withdrawal from the single market — and the pound falls to a three-year low against the euro.
From the high court to the supreme
After a court case brought by a business owner, Britain’s high court rules on Nov. 3 that Parliament must approve the triggering of Article 50, going against May’s assertion that her government can do it unilaterally. It’s a blow to May as it could disrupt her proposed March timeline. In December the government appeals against the legal ruling with Britain’s Supreme Court. The ruling is due sometime in January.
If the government loses, May will have to present a bill in order to approve Article 50, which would then have to pass through the lower and upper houses of Parliament. This may lead to amendments and delays to her proposed end-of-March timeline. It will also expose May’s negotiating position with E.U. leaders over the terms of departure.
Read more about the ruling here.
More doubt is sown over May’s Brexit strategy when a leaked memo written by a Deloitte consultant claims her government is bitterly divided over a Brexit strategy and might need an extra 30,000 civil servants to deal with the complex issue of extricating the country out of the E.U.
Details to follow
May cuts a deal with the House of Commons (Parliament’s lower house), agreeing to present her negotiating objectives for lawmakers to scrutinize before triggering Article 50. In return, they agree to back her Brexit timeline. The Dec. 8 vote passes 448-75. It’s not legally binding, but it is significant given May says she will provide details of her negotiating strategy.
Rogers, over and out
Just three days into 2017 and Britain’s ambassador to the E.U., Ivan Rogers, resigns with a letter to fellow civil servants suggesting that the government was unwilling to accept the realities of leaving the E.U. “I hope you will continue to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking and that you will never be afraid to speak the truth to those in power,” he wrote.
Rogers had previously said it would take Britain up to a decade to forge a post-Brexit trade deal with the E.U. Pro-Brexit ministers insist it can be done in two years. The resignation is the latest blow to a Brexit process that critics say is going badly awry.
Pressure builds on May to lay out in clear terms exactly what she wants from Brexit. In a Jan. 8 television interview with Sky News, she hints that Britain could not expect to retain full access to the E.U.’s single market after Brexit. She also insisted that she was not “muddled” about Brexit. The next day, the pound sterling falls to its lowest point against the U.S. dollar in two months.
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