‘Brexit means Brexit’ is now a common refrain around Westminster. It can be used as shorthand to describe the way Theresa May has embraced the type of Brexit many in her party hoped for.
Her instincts, forged by her time spent as Home Secretary, have led her to believe that the UK regaining jurisdiction over its laws, and a desire to end free movement of labour were the primary takeaways from the referendum result and this has been reflected in her actions since. But she has not had it all her own way.
She was the highest-profile Remainer in the Conservative leadership race, and faced an initial challenge of how to placate those in her party who would have preferred someone else. She made a number of moves to bring together the two sides of the Party, from appointing Chris Grayling as her Campaign Manager, to giving four high-profile Brexiters – Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom – important, Brexit-facing departments.
She succeeded in her efforts, with her Conference Speech in October setting the stall for how the Government would proceed. She added detail to this in January, where she confirmed her intention to leave the Single Market, thus enabling to pursue her two key goals.
She also used both speeches to outline her desire for a ‘Global Britain’ where Britain would be an outward-looking trading nation that remained a close partner of the bloc in a number of areas.
With the internal party battle won, May has faced external pressures.
Initially, she hoped to use prerogative powers to trigger Article 50, but the Supreme Court ruled in January that the government could not formally start the Brexit process without approval from Parliament. In the Commons, this was fairly straightforward after Jeremy Corbyn whipped the opposition to support the triggering of Article 50. She faced a larger headache as the Lords initially voted to secure the rights of EU citizens in the UK within the Article 50 bill, but has now managed to overcome that speedbump.
Where she is yet to face difficulty is in dealing with the Labour Party. Despite a notable rebellion of 47 MPs in the Commons over the Article 50 Bill, Corbyn managed to ensure sufficient support that the passing of the Bill was never in doubt. The Party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has said that they supported the passing of the Bill as recognition of the referendum result, but will seek to oppose Theresa May’s vision of Brexit where it diverges from their own.
While Labour are not high-up on May’s list of worries, the future of the Union may well be. In her first speech as Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street, May specifically mentioned the full name of her Party, The Conservative and Unionist Party, and made clear she prioritised keeping the Union together.
However, she faces challenges from the SNP after Nicola Sturgeon announced her desire to hold a second independence referendum.
Both the timing of Sturgeon’s announcement, which derailed May’s desire to trigger Article 50 that week, and the preferred referendum date of late 2018/19 have surely been designed to cause as much trouble for the UK’s negotiating hand.
Brexit, and in particular the UK seeking to alter its relationship with the Customs Union, also puts at risk the Northern Irish peace process, which stipulates borderless access between the North and South of Ireland.
This is one of the most delicate immediate matters for the Government to resolve, with key players continually describing their desire for ‘frictionless’ access, but without much detail as to how.
It has been a whirlwind nine months since the referendum, and the Prime Minister is currently spinning a large number of plates. What is clear is that the huge number of developments since the referendum is likely to continue as negotiations finally begin.
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