Theresa May is Brexit, and Brexit is Theresa May. The two are inextricably linked, bound together like a Faustian trade deal. If one fails so shall the other, and if one triumphs both will share the glory. To understand the progress of Brexit in the last 12 months you have to understand how Theresa May has fared. Unfortunately for both concerned, 2017 was the year the Prime Minister walked through a car wash when all she needed was a brush of her hair.
May looked measured and confident back in January, when she told the nation at Lancaster House that Britain would indeed be pursuing a ‘hard Brexit’ by leaving the single market, the customs union and the remit of the European Court of Justice. To reassure business, she added that a two-year transition period would be necessary to avoid any cliff edges. Meanwhile, a ‘bold and ambitious’ trade deal would be agreed, on which Parliament would be given a vote. Her tone was friendly towards the European Union, saying she wanted it to succeed, but urging it not to be punitive towards Britain. No deal, in her view, was better than a bad deal. Her speech was impressive, audacious even, but only one a strong Prime Minister could make.
Triggering Article 50 was more difficult than the government expected. A British-Guyanese business owner called Gina Miller had decided to kick up a fuss over Parliament’s right to have a say before the process could go ahead. The judges of the Supreme Court took Miller’s side. Furious though the Brexiters were, Parliament still voted overwhelmingly in favour of the triggering on 15th March. The beginning of the process took the peculiarly quaint form of a letter sent from the Prime Minister to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. Receiving it soon after, Tusk commented: ‘we already miss you, thank you and goodbye.’
With the main event (or so it seemed) of the spring now over, it was time for the government to get down to the business of negotiating. But over Easter, the Prime Minister went for a walk in the woods and decided that holding a general election would be a good idea. May baffled many when she said that she’d been forced into the decision reluctantly, especially when the polls suggested the Tories could smash Labour. More convincing was her argument that ‘every vote for the Conservatives makes me stronger when I negotiate with the European Union.’ For a while, she looked impregnable.
Yet May would never have such authority again. Attempts to frame herself as a steely negotiator who would fight for a good Brexit seemed to fail. Jeremy Corbyn discovered that not only he was good at campaigning, but that he quite enjoyed it, while May gave the impression she wasn’t very good and thought it beneath her even to try. Staid speeches, no-shows at the debates, and backtracks on Tory manifesto policies saw poll leads vanish and transformed the strong and stable into the frightened and flustered.
May faced calls to resign on the morning of 9th June, but it was Brexit – the reason she claimed the election had been called – which saved her. She told her parliamentary party a few days after the bruising result that she’d see Britain’s withdrawal through, providing they were willing. No doubt she was conscience of the fact that replacing her could have triggered another election, which may have brought Corbyn or the end of Brexit, or both. The negotiations were about to begin. Changing Prime Minister would only complicate matters.
Yet things were far from rosy. Glastonbury-rocking Jeremy Corbyn even looked tougher than Britain’s battered Prime Minister. The summer talks opened under the agreement that three priorities – EU citizens’ rights, the Irish border question, and the nature of the divorce bill – must be settled before trade talks could begin. The first bout of talks ended in disappointment, with negotiator Michel Barnier expressing his concern and Brexit Secretary David Davis returning home without agreement. The French Barnier is one of the figures Nigel Farage is fond of denouncing as an unelected bureaucrat. Farage was by now saying that it was a mistake for May, a secret Remainer, to be PM, and that Brexit was ‘being betrayed’. For a while it looked like Boris Johnson, ‘the Great British Lion,’ as the Telegraph dubbed him, could break with the cabinet and launch a leadership campaign on the same theme. The Tories looked as if they weren’t treating Brexit with the seriousness it deserved.
Early September saw the third anniversary of the Scottish vote on independence, and by March of 2017 Nicola Sturgeon had made it clear she wanted a second one, on the grounds that the Scots had not opted for Brexit. Holding a referendum during negotiations would indeed be messy, but May’s rebuke played to the worst caricature of Westminster – one where senior politicians attempt to keep impetuous little Scotland in its place. One of the few upsides of her election calamity is that it postponed the Scottish problem, although it was hardly May’s achievement. Her Scottish counterpart Ruth Davidson’s work in winning 13 Tory seats weakened the SNP, although the Nationalists are keen to make another push soon – believing the Tories to be vulnerable. Something to watch out for in 2018.
In an attempt to bolster her own leadership and get Brexit moving again, the PM made a speech in Florence in the early autumn, reiterating the need for a transition period, and, in a major concession, announcing that there would be a divorce bill of a figure as yet unspecified, but perhaps around 50 billion Euros. The Irish border question proved even more incendiary, as May’s new bedfellows the DUP made it clear they would not accept any special situation for Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster’s rejection of ‘regulatory divergence’ risked ending the year in disappointment, but the government persevered and, on 15th December, a deal was agreed. Now it’s time for phase two.
As the year ends, it is interesting to note that the EU has gone through its own changes. It looked extremely weak when the year began, bracing itself for tough elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Yet the Dutch Geert Wilders, anti-EU and anti-immigration, floundered, while Marine Le Pen missed out on her chance to win the French presidency (though she did make it to the final round). Elected instead was Emmanuel Macron, whose close personal and political relationship with Germany’s Angela Merkel has made the EU seem more united than some Brexiters hoped. Merkel herself has had a tough year but the EU, on the whole, looks stronger than it did 12 months ago.
Not so for dear old Blighty. The Prime Minister started out in a strong position but caused tremendous and arguably unnecessary damage to herself with the election, the result of which threw Brexit into doubt. Yet despite all the chaos, Theresa May has managed to hang on and secure the objectives she set out in January, and goes into the new year ready to discuss a trade deal. Despite Brexit consuming 2017 (there was no Queen’s Speech, and a nonentity of a budget), many important questions are still to be addressed. Asked by Laura Kuenssberg if May’s goal of a full agreement by March 2019 was realistic, Donald Tusk said that it was ‘realistic of course, but dramatically difficult.’
We knew back in January that it wouldn’t be easy, but we had no idea it would be so dramatic.
Calum Henderson is an Editor at Backbench