New UK Prime Minister
David Cameron announced his resignation at 8:30 AM the day following the referendum vote to leave the European Union. The forerunners to succeed him appeared to be Boris Johnson who had been very prominent in the leave campaign and Theresa May who had supported remain, albeit with apparent reserve. Gove who had also been prominent in the leave campaign and was a key ally of Johnson announced his own candidature three hours before nominations close, stating that he had reluctantly come to the conclusion that Johnson could not provide the leadership or build a team for the task ahead. Johnson withdrew from the leadership race shortly afterwards. Andrea Leadsom Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox also entered the Conservative Party leadership race.
The Conservative Party leader is elected by the membership under its rules. There are successive rounds voted by Members of Parliament reducing the candidates ultimately leading to a final-round voted by the party members, between the two leading candidates.
All five candidates rejected the notion of a second referendum or an early general election. The results of the first round were announced on 5 July 2016 and placed Theresa May far ahead of her closest rival Andrea Leadsom. A second-round between Gove, Leadsom, and May took place two days later with May, the clear winner. Gove was eliminated. Andrea Leadsom withdrew from the race saying that it was in the best interests of the country, leaving May the only candidate.
Theresa May a was confirmed as leader, and on 13 July 2016 was invited by the Queen to form a government and appointed Prime Minister. Theresa May appointed a number of leading Brexiteers to the Cabinet including Boris Johnson, David Davies, Liam Fox, Priti Patel, Andrea Leadsom. Boris Johnson was appointed Foreign Secretary, and David Davis was appointed Brexit Secretary. Liam Fox became Secretary of State for International Trade.
Initiation of Process
On 29 June 2016, the EU heads of state/government in response to the referendum declared that no negotiations could commence before Article 50 was triggered. In October 2016, the UK Prime Minister announced her intention to trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017.
On 17th January 2017, the UK Prime Minister delivered a speech at Lancaster House setting out the government’s plan for the UK departure. The Prime Minister said that her government would not seek single market membership, stay within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice nor within the EU customs union. Theresa May made clear that the UK was prepared to walk away from negotiations if the trade deal was not the best deal for Britain and asserted that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK’. The UK’s government White Paper on Brexit was published on 2 February 2017 and reflected this position.
The UK’s objective was to make progress on discussions on the future UK-EU relationship alongside the Article 50 withdrawal negotiations. The UK sought a bold and ambitious free trade agreement which should be of greater scope and ambition than any agreement before it. It stated that it could be achieved more easily, given that the regulatory frameworks and standards are already aligned. The UK was open to agreeing on a mechanism to manage the evolution of the frameworks and standards.
The EU also expressed its desire to have a comprehensive and ambitious trade agreement if possible. A future partnership would also involve agreement in other areas, such as foreign and security policy, justice and home affairs, research, civil aviation and development cooperation.
The UK notification triggering Article 50 was given on 29th March 2017.
Early UK General Election
Theresa May had inherited the 20 (effectively 30+, with Sinn Fein abstentions) majority that David Cameron had achieved in the 2015 general election. There was persistent speculation that she would need a large majority in order to pass a Withdrawal Agreement and new trade agreement particularly in light of the likely demands of the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party in particular that represented by the ERG the European Research Group.
On 18th April 2017, Theresa May called a general election at a time when the opinion polls showed a Conservative lead of almost 20% ahead of Labour (45% to 25%), and there were predictions of a majority of 150 seats or more. The Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 effectively required a two-thirds majority of the house to dissolve parliament and the relevant motion was supported by the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens. It was expected that the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn who had been elected by the membership against the wishes of most of the parliamentary party would fail to take his party much above 25% of the vote.
The announcement of a general election came as a surprise as the Prime Minister had denied on many occasions that she intended to call one. The clear objective was to strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand in negotiation with the European Union, by way of a bigger majority in Parliament, in view of the evidence of splinter groups in her party with one determined to remain and another determined to exit at all costs including, if not preferably, on no-deal terms if deemed necessary
Following a poor performance in the campaign and an unexpected determination on the part of sufficient members of the electorate to push back against the Government’s vision of Brexit, in the General Election on 8th June 2017 and to the surprise of most observers the Labour Party obtained 40% of the vote as against the Conservative Party’s 42.4% of the vote. This yielded a hung parliament with the Conservative Party losing its majority. Labour, despite its strong showing, was far short of a majority.
The Labour Party had done particularly well in London, and other affluent remain supporting areas despite its ambiguity on the Brexit issue. The wholly unexpected 40% share was attributed to a strong remain consistency.
Lost Majority DUP Confidence and Supply
The Conservatives formed a new government with a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. The Conservative 317 seats with the DUP’s ten seats gave a narrow working majority. The narrow majority now meant that backbench Conservative MPs became more powerful including hard-core remainers and hard-core Brexiteers.
The DUP had supported Brexit enthusiastically while in a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein under the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. That government had collapsed in January 2017 ostensibly over the issue of the so-called renewable heat incentive scandal which incentivised the use of renewable energy at a rate in excess of its costs.
The DUP leader Arlene Foster had been Minister for Enterprise Trade and Investment at an earlier period, and the emergence of the matter in November 2016 ultimately lead Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness to resign as deputy first minister in protest thereby collapsing the institutions. However, the growing tensions between Sinn Fein and the DUP over Brexit were widely assumed to have played a role.
The presence of the DUP was believed by some to make it more likely that closer relations between the UK and EU would emerge in order to reduce the risk of a so-called hard border in Ireland. On the other hand, the DUP strongly opposed any solution which would see Northern Ireland treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom.
After the general election, the UK government was fatally weakened in its desired note association objectives. The result of the election appeared to be a rejection of the harder, more distant Brexit announced in the Lancaster House speech and subsequent policy papers. Some cabinet ministers openly advocated continuation in the single market and customs union for a transition period of 2 to 3 years following exit followed by an implementation phase to allow new UK trade agreements to be put in place.