A Brief Guide to Brexit: Where We Are, and How We Got Here

Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Matt Dunham - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Theresa May’s premiership is teetering on the verge of collapse after she unveiled a draft agreement on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union described as “the worst deal in history” — but what are the sticking points, and how did we get here?

The Prime Minister’s leadership of the British government and the Conservative and Unionist Party has never seemed more in doubt after the terms of her draft withdrawal agreement caused a number of her ministers to resign in protest, but the political landscape could be confusing for observers too busy to keep up with at least four years of intrigues and infighting.

The Road to the Referendum

While often regarded as “eurosceptic”, Britain’s governing Conservative Party — also known as the Tories — did, in fact, facilitate the country’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1970s, and signed off on the Maastricht Treaty which transformed it into the European Union in the 1990s.

29th May 1975: a variety of goods purchased in London and Brussels with the intention of showing that Britain should leave the Common Market. / Keystone/Getty Images

It has always contained a tranche of politicians who genuinely support a British exit from the European Union, but no Tory leader has ever been an “out” Brexiteer, and EU loyalists have always made up a majority of its parliamentarians — if not of their ordinary members or voters.

This state of affairs led to the party haemorrhaging an increasing number of votes to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), founded to campaign for Brexit in 1993. This once-fringe organisation’s popularity grew to the point where it actually came in first place in the European Parliamentary elections of 2014, creating real fears among the Tories that UKIP would cost them key marginal seats in the General Election the following year, at a time when none of the mainstream political parties commanded an outright majority in Parliament.

The Gamble that Failed

In an attempt to defang the UKIP snake, Tory prime minister David Cameron — then governing in coalition with the left-liberal, fanatically europhile Liberal Democrats — offered to hold an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in his 2015 election manifesto.

The political consensus at the time was that, as in 2010, no one political party would win an outright parliamentary majority in the 2015 election, and so there was some question as to whether Cameron ever really planned on holding an EU referendum. Many commentators believed the proposal was simply a ploy to win UKIP votes, and that he was confident a referendum would, in fact, be blocked by the other, anti-referendum parties in Parliament when the time came for his minority or coalition government to honour his pledge.

Then UKIP leader Nigel Farage campaigns in London in 2014 / Carl Court/Getty Images

As it turned out, however, the Tories did win an outright, if fairly slim, majority in an upset victory, inadvertently forcing him to hold a vote for real.

MPs authorised the referendum legislation by a voting margin of around six to one, but only a small minority of them actually backed Brexit in the subsequent campaign — perhaps a third of Tory MPs, the small band of Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs representing Northern Ireland, and a mere handful of politicians from the left-wing opposition parties.

There was a confident expectation that the official Remain campaign, backed by all the machinery of the British government and the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, with the support of big business and the global establishment — including then-U.S. President Barack Obama and the leadership of the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and other international bodies — would carry the day.

They were all stunned when, in defiance of the polls, the British public backed Leave by a margin of well over a million votes on June 23rd, 2016, thanks in large part to a huge number of working-class voters being won over by Nigel Farage’s warning that Brexit was the only way to bring end years of uncontrolled mass migration.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

David Cameron, despite promising to see Brexit through if the people backed Leave prior to the referendum, stepped down as Prime Minister and Tory leader the morning after the result was announced — and the race was then on to find a replacement.

British prime ministers are not directly elected by the people, with the position instead falling to whoever can command a majority in Parliament — in practice, this is generally the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons.

The Tories, more particularly, select their leaders from among their Parliamentary Party, with MPs winnowing a slate of candidates down to a final two, who then submit themselves to a ballot of all party members.

A number of prominent Brexiteer Tories put their names forward — but, as mentioned above, Brexiteers are a minority within the Tory Party.

This allowed Remain-supporting Home Secretary Theresa May to secure the lion’s share of support among the party’s MPs — with Andrea Leadsom, the relatively unknown Brexiteer candidate who reached the final two with her, simply stepping aside rather than contest the leadership in a ballot of all party members, believing she did not have sufficient support among her predominantly Remain-supporting parliamentary colleagues to lead an effective administration.

This outcome was unpopular with the party membership — who unlike their MPs mostly backed Leave — but they were reassured when Mrs May appeared to adopt a strong Brexit platform, promising she would deliver on the Leave vote with a deal that took Britain out of the EU’s Customs Union, Single Market, and associated Free Movement regime.

Moreover, she warned that, if Brussels would not agree a free trade agreement on such terms, she was clear that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

The Gamble that Failed, Redux

With the opposition Labour Party in the doldrums under Jeremy Corbyn, an old-fashioned socialist who had been a marginal figure among Labour MPs prior to his election to the leadership by the party membership in 2015 — thanks to new rules which opened up the contest to a large number of hard left entryists — Theresa May decided to call a snap General Election, hoping to take advantage of polls indicating she would secure a greatly increased majority.

She did significantly increase both the overall number of ballots cast for her party and its share of the popular vote overall in the June 2017 vote– but, against all odds, Corbyn also increased his share of the vote, and in such a way that the Tories remained the single largest party in the House of Commons but lost their outright parliamentary majority.

A so-called “confidence and supply” arrangement was concluded with Northern Ireland’s DUP so that she could carry key votes in the Commons and remain in power, but her authority was shattered.

Theresa the Appeaser 

Despite her tough words on becoming party leader, it soon became clear that the Remain-supporting Prime Minister had little faith in Britain’s ability to succeed in the face of an intransigent European Union.

It was months before she finally activated Article 50, the legal mechanism for leaving the European Union provided by the EU treaties, and began the two-year negotiating period it entails.

Defiant words on no deal being better than a bad deal — leaving the EU without a formal exit agreement and simply dealing with the bloc on the same World Trade Organisation terms as countries like America and Australia has always been an option — soon appeared to melt away, with the Prime Minister agreeing to pay the bloc a multi-billion divorce settlement, despite the fact the United Kingdom has put more into the EU’s shared budget than it has taken out of it for decades.

Worse, the EU appeared to grant her nothing in return for this enormous payout — not even continued participation in relatively minor projects like the Galileo satellite programme, which Britain played a large role in funding and developing — but merely demanded the money as the price of moving on to a second phase of negotiations in which a future trade relationship which would be discussed.

Global Britain, or Little Europe?

The EU provides for free movement of goods, capital, services and labour between member-states as part of its Single Market.

There are catches, however: goods are subject to a common set of EU standards interpreted by a European Court of Justice; the Single Market in Services exists more in theory than in practice; and Free Movement of Labour has evolved into Free Movement of People — with very limited opportunities to deport EU foreigners even if they are jobless, living as vagrants, or have criminal records.

The heart of the bloc, however, is its Customs Union. The European Union either speaks for or dictates a “common position” to of all of its members on global trade bodies, such as the World Trade Organization and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), sets common external tariffs on non-EU imports, and it enjoys “exclusive competence” in international trade negotiations.

This means that the UK, which is unique in the EU in that it does the bulk of its trade with countries outside the bloc, cannot negotiate free trade agreements with some of its most significant partners, including the United States and its old allies in the Commonwealth of Nations, and must instead rely on the EU to negotiate deals on its behalf.

Deals which would suit British interests but not the interests of, say, German manufacturing or French farmers, have therefore not been produced.

It had been hoped that Brexit would be an opportunity for Britain to finally strike those deals, and to lower tariffs on food, clothing, and footwear not made in the UK to help consumers — but the deal Theresa May has negotiated with the EU will not allow this.

Backstops and Customs and More, Oh My

After Brexit, the European Union’s only land border with the United Kingdom will run along the frontier between the Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

The European Union had claimed that the only way to avoid a so-called ‘hard border’ between the Republic and the Province is for the latter to remain entirely within its Customs Union and Single Market, necessitating customs checks between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.

A majority of residents in the troubled province support the British Union, and were for many years subjected to a paramilitary terror campaign by elements within the Irish nationalist minority who sought to absorb Northern Ireland into an all-island state.

The DUP, the main representative of the British Unionist majority in Northern Ireland, was therefore totally unwilling to countenance the EU’s proposal — the so-called “backstop solution” to keeping the Irish border open — as it would at least to some extent sunder Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, and turn it into a kind of EU province.

Rather than insist on technical solutions and mutual recognition of standards to resolve the border question, however, Theresa May chose to offer concessions: she said she would keep the entire United Kingdom in the EU Customs Union, and submit to a ‘common rulebook’ for goods identical to the EU’s rulebook, as interpreted by the EU court.

This would avoid the need for a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK — but the price is that Britain will remain unable to strike meaningful trade deals even after Brexit, or set its own rules with respect to goods and customs — or even have a minority say over them, as it does as an EU member.

First Rebellion

This deal formed the basis of Theresa May’s so-called ‘Chequers Plan’ for Brexit, and began the exodus of Brexit-supporting Tories from her administration.

The first to go was the David Davis, the Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) specifically created to deliver Brexit, and the nominal chief negotiator for Britain in its negotiations with the EU.

He and his junior minister, Steve Baker, indicated that ‘Chequers’ had been developed essentially behind their backs by Theresa May’s main EU adviser, Soviet-sympathising bureaucrat Olly Robbins, while they had been working on an entirely different set of proposals (and ‘No Deal’ contingencies) in the belief that they would form the basis of Britain’s proposals.

Davis was followed by Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary Boris Johnson, who had been the effective leader of the official Vote Leave campaign during the referendum, who argued that the PM’s plan would reduce Britain to the status of an “EU colony”.

The rebels failed to mount a leadership challenge against the Prime Minister, however — with insiders reporting there was some disagreement between Davis and Johnson over who should take over from May as leader — and she reacted by simply strengthening her grip on the Cabinet.

Johnson was replaced with Jeremy Hunt — a staunch Remainer — and Davis was replaced with Dominic Raab — a less prominent Brexiteer, who was soon officially sidelined in the negotiations by May and the civil servant Robbins.

The Soros Vote

By now, more than two years had passed since the Leave vote in 2016. Remainer politicians, who had largely claimed they would “respect the result” in the weeks and months after the referendum, were emboldened by the shambolic conduct of the negotiations, and a belief that enough older Leave voters had died and enough young Remainers come of age that they could now win a re-run.

A large segment of opposition MPs and a small band of Tory EU loyalists thus began openly agitating for “the people” to have a “final say” on the Prime Minister’s deal, with the option of staying in the EU after all if they voted against it.

This campaign has been organised under the cross-party “People’s Vote” banner and bankrolled in part by billionaire plutocrat George Soros — a matter of some controversy, when the Hungarian-American’s conduct is considered alongside ongoing efforts by elements of the “Remain Resistance” to dismiss the original Leave vote as illegitimate due to unsubstantiated claims of foreign interference in the 2016 referendum.

The Worst Deal in History

It is against this backdrop that Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement with the European Union, based on her Chequers proposals, has been unveiled, to nigh-universal condemnation.

It stipulates that not only shall Britain hand over tens of billions of pounds to the European Union despite no guarantee of inclusion in Galileo and other joint programmes, but it shall indeed submit to an EU-regulated, UK-wide “single customs territory” in goods and agri-products — the services industry so important to Britain is excluded — and it shall additionally submit Northern Ireland to extra Single Market obligations.

This would mean that, for the first time, the Irish government in Dublin would, through its role in EU rulemaking, have in some ways more of a say over Northern Ireland’s laws than either London or the local administration in Belfast.

Incredibly, the agreement also requires the United Kingdom to accept that it cannot pull out of this “backstop” arrangement unilaterally, but must first secure the permission of the European Union or appeal to a third party arbitrator — an even more dependent situation than it finds itself in as a full EU member.

These “backstop” concessions by the Prime Minister on Northern Ireland, more than any others, appears to have been the final straw for not only Tory Brexiteers, but for the DUP MPs on whom the Prime Minister relies for her parliamentary majority. They have all vowed to vote down the deal when it comes before Parliament for approval.

However, even these dire arrangements will come into force only after a so-called ‘transition period’ following Britain’s formal exit from the EU in March 2019, in which it will essentially remain a full EU member minus its representation in EU institutions.

It was initially thought that this ‘transition’ would last only to the end of 2020, but the withdrawal agreement states that it could be extended to “[December 31 20XX]” by mutual agreement — meaning the United Kingdom could theoretically remain in EU purgatory until December 2099.


Dominic Raab, David Davis’s successor as Secretary of State for Brexit, was the first big hitter to walk out of government over the withdrawal agreement. Like his predecessor, he was kept in the dark about the Prime Minister’s plans until the last moment, and refused to board a jet waiting to take him to Brussels so he could stand beside lead EU negotiator Michel Barnier as the deal was unveiled there.

He has been followed by the Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Esther McVey, and a number of Ministers of State.

Perhaps most significantly, however, the European Research Group (ERG) faction of Brexit-supporting Tory MPs and their influential ad hoc leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, have finally stopped campaigning only for the Prime Minister’s policies to be changed, and are now calling for fresh leadership as well.

A vote of no confidence, therefore, appears to be in the offing, with it seeming certain that enough letters have been sent to to the chairman of the 1922 committee, which represents Tory MPs who are not government ministers (backbenchers), to reach the 15 per cent threshold required to trigger a leadership challenge under Conservative Party rules.

Even if the Prime Minister survives a confidence vote, it seems certain her deal will not survive a parliamentary vote, with the left-wing opposition, the DUP, and a large number of her own MPs now determined to vote against it come what may.

With the country ill-prepared for a ‘No Deal’ clean Brexit — arguably deliberately, in order to bounce Brexiteers into accepting Brexit In Name Only — and no majority for it in a Remain-dominated Parliament, it is now very unclear how things will unfold.

Either the country will have to find a way to make ‘No Deal’ work with only a few months to go before Brexit Day next March, or the question of whether Britain will leave the EU at all will be reopened through the mechanism of a so-called “People’s Vote”.

The latter option faces legal obstacles and would require collusion between British Remainers and the EU itself — but with senior EU loyalists including Tony Blair, Sir John Major, and Sir Nick Clegg having held regular meetings with the EU’s negotiating team ever since the Leave vote was cast, it may well be that a contingency plan for just such an event has already been hatched.

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