What has happened?
The six months since the EU referendum on 23 June have been some of the most tumultuous in British political history:
- within a day, the Prime Minister had resigned and Scottish independence was put firmly back on the agenda;
- within a week, the Leader of the Opposition was facing a leadership challenge, and Nigel Farage had stepped aside from the leadership of the UK Independence Party (UKIP);
- within a month, a new Prime Minister who had been on the losing side of the referendum was elevated without an election, heading a Cabinet with a mix of Leavers and Remainers, and new Secretary of State positions.
While none of these alone is unprecedented, there has been no comparable moment in the post-War period when so much has happened almost at once.
Alongside these political developments, the referendum precipitated a major reorganisation of Whitehall. This has seen the marginalisation of the Treasury and Foreign Office, the creation of new ministries and a rebirth of Cabinet government, albeit one in which Prime Minister Theresa May plays a very central role.
And yet, seismic though these events have been, remarkably little has changed substantively since June. The UK Government has still to announce what form of post-membership relationship it will seek with the EU, or even to table formally its intention to leave. Even as the Supreme Court decides whether Parliamentary authorisation is needed to make that notification, questions remain about the role that Westminster will play thereafter – in particular, how MPs will scrutinise the negotiation as it happens, either through the new Exiting the EU Select Committee or more generally. Further legal challenges, such as one mooted about leaving the European Economic Area (EEA), remain in the category of ‘known unknowns’: their potential existence is acknowledged, but their ramifications are not.
Despite the appointments Theresa May made on entering Number 10, it is not clear who will be responsible for negotiating Brexit, at either the ministerial or more technical level. The new Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) is still recruiting its mid- and junior-level personnel, and there are regular counter-briefings from different parts of government on who does what and to what end. The EU Exit and Trade Cabinet Committee contains mostly ‘Leave’ supporters, but May still holds a tight rein.
The combination of massive shock and apparent inertia is in part explicable in terms of the lack of planning by the British political system for a ‘Leave’ outcome. This in turn was partly due to an unwillingness
by the Government to provide succour to Leavers; and partly (perhaps largely) to wishful thinking about the outcome. As referendums across Europe on EU-related topics have shown time and again, it is complacency that frequently undermines the government-approved line.
What is happening?
The lack of preparation meant that the initial hiatus, triggered by David Cameron’s prompt departure, was a moment to step back from the shock and consider how to proceed. May’s bid for the leadership was built precisely on being a ‘safe pair of hands’, who would pursue Brexit in a calm and considered manner, with a Chancellor who would do the same.
But six months later, the hiatus looks less like calmness and more like transfixion in the Article 50 headlights. May has staked her credibility on getting to the Article 50 notification without undue delay, locking in the end of March 2017 as her deadline. However, the articulation of little more than a series of unrelated and mutually- conflicting aspirations cannot hide the absence of a game-plan.
This basic problem has been compounded by a series of decisions:
- May has been unwilling to let other Ministers take control of parts of the Brexit brief, while DExEU and the new Department for International Trade remain in their start-up phase.
- The traditional sources of expertise – such as the Foreign Office – have been marginalised, both intentionally (to avoid using a part of government seen by many as having ‘gone native’) and accidentally (as EU specialists try to get away from undoing their life’s work).
The legal challenges regarding Parliament’s role have been a source of delay, not least because of the Government’s insistence on appealing the initial High Court decision to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, and despite an ineffective Parliamentary opposition, factions on both sides of the Conservative Party threaten to hamstring May as she inches along the Brexit tightrope. The defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by-election in early December, followed by Parliament’s insistence on seeing a Government Brexit plan before the triggering of Article 50, highlight both the ability of collaborative opposition efforts to frustrate the Government and the fragility of May’s parliamentary majority.
What happens next?
The next six months will be crucial: by 23 June 2017 we will know more clearly whether the UK is heading for a departure without an agreement with the EU27, and indeed whether it is heading for departure at all. May’s only politically-acceptable reason for delaying the Article 50 notification past March would be if Parliament were caught up in passing authorising legislation. Otherwise, the internal pressure on her would become much greater. At the same time, the pressure from the EU27 to launch the Article 50 process will also rise, because – as Sara Hagemann makes clear in her contribution – they do not wish to spend any more time on the issue than necessary.
Only with the Article 50 notification will clarity emerge about the terms sought: the EU27 are refusing to enter into even informal negotiations before that point. However, the difficulty remains that neither side knows what the other wants: May does not want to ask for something she might not get, recalling her predecessor’s experience; while the EU27 do not want to give up their strong position within the Article 50 framework.
The presentation of all this to each other and to publics will be central, especially in the UK. If May feels constrained by a press that appears deeply unwilling to let slide any aspect of the claimed ‘Leave’ mandate, she may find she has little option but to head for the harder end of the Brexit spectrum. And around all this will continue to swirl a debate about whether a second referendum is required, to decide whether to accept whatever deal is agreed.
Simon Usherwood is a senior fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe, and Reader in Politics at the University of Surrey.