Why the British PM is pursuing a Brexit she doesn’t believe in: Analysis

By on 03/10/2016 | Updated on 05/10/2016
British Prime Minister Theresa May

It is becoming clear that the UK is heading for a ‘hard’ Brexit, leaving the EU’s Single Market and customs union and recreating its trading relationships from scratch. Matt Ross explains why its arch-pragmatist Prime Minister Theresa May is pursuing such a radical strategy

Just now, Britain is baffling.

For a quarter of a century, the UK has looked like one of the world’s more stable democracies. Its influence on the rest of the world has occasionally been disruptive – take Tony Blair’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq war, or the City of London’s part in fostering the 2008 financial crisis – but in the main, UK governments of all stripes have been seen as sensible actors on the world stage. Then comes Brexit, and suddenly nothing makes sense.

It is relatively straightforward to explain both the decision to hold a referendum, and the government’s failure to win it – and Global Government Forum has tried to do so. But since the June result, the UK seems to have travelled further through the looking glass.

Following former PM David Cameron’s resignation, home secretary Theresa May saw off her Leave-campaigner rivals to replace him – but promptly stuffed her Cabinet with key Brexiteers. Then Number 10 both insisted endlessly – and vacuously – that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, whilst tying itself in knots to avoid giving any real shape to its concept of a post-EU settlement. Whilst EU political leaders and the European Commission insisted that Britain can’t enjoy free movement of goods if it curtails the movement of labour, Number 10 slapped down every suggestion that the UK will have to leave the Single Market to secure its goals on immigration.

Then came Sunday, and at the Conservative Party Conference – now underway in Birmingham – May said clearly that a post-Brexit UK will not be subject to unrestricted immigration or the rulings of the European Court of Justice, offering a clear signal that Britain will have to leave the Single Market.

Is there a plan?

So what’s going on? Harsher commentators argue that nobody – up to and including the new PM – has a plan. Former Tory chancellor and veteran Europhile Ken Clarke recently told the New Statesman that May is “running a government with no policies”, and that “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front.”

To some extent, this was bound to be true. May didn’t bring us to this point, and her predecessor never planned for Brexit: Cameron’s – ultimately hubristic – strategy was to win the referendum and thus emasculate his own party’s Eurosceptic strand, killing the low-level rebellion that has bedevilled Tory PMs since John Major’s premiership. Brexit is the result of a misjudged political gamble, not a policy decision by the PM that leaving the EU would best serve government and country.

Indeed, May argued against Brexit. Although she was conspicuously quiet during the referendum campaign – thus keeping her political options open (a favourite tactic) – she did eventually call for a Remain vote. So the new PM, whilst no friend of the European project, decided that the costs of leaving far outweighed the benefits; she knows that her task now is to make the best of a bad job.

But if May has been dealt a poor hand, she’s played a clever political game.

Making the best of a bad job

Given her narrow, 16-strong parliamentary majority, her first task as leader was to demonstrate her commitment to delivering on the referendum’s outcome: 40% of her 329 MPs campaigned to Leave, and most of the rest accept that the vote must be seen as final. Only by giving key Cabinet posts to leading Brexit campaigners could May convince the Eurosceptics in the press and her own party that the government was not planning a fudge – hatching a deal with EU leaders that would change the UK’s official status without liberating it from EU regulations or constraining immigration. “There was a lot of talk of how we needed a Brexiteer as PM, and that anyone else would lack credibility,” says Sir Paul Jenkins, the government’s former chief legal adviser and now a member at Matrix Chambers. “If she’d put [the Remain-supporting chancellor] Phil Hammond in to lead Brexit, people would have said: ‘You’re not serious’.”

There was, however, a hefty dose of poetic justice in May’s Cabinet appointments.

Having worked closely with former London mayor Boris Johnson on the referendum campaign, Michael Gove – the most senior minister to back Brexit – first backed his partner’s bid for the Tory leadership, then abruptly turned on Boris and went for the top job himself. But Tory MPs were horrified by his treachery; and May’s rise to the top sealed his fate. The two have had some dramatic bust-ups over the years, one of which led to Gove’s demotion and the forced resignation of May’s special adviser Fiona Hill – now ensconced in Number 10 among the PM’s closest political advisers. Having alienated his parliamentary colleagues, Gove could safely be cast onto the backbenches by the new PM. “She’s loathed him since the beginning of time,” observes one government insider.

The other leading Brexiteers have been given testing jobs that may well expose their weaknesses. Johnson, who insulted many of the world’s leaders and nations during his colourful careers as a journalist and London mayor, is now doing the global walk of shame as foreign secretary – smoothing ruffled feathers as he strives to change his image from amiable buffoon to worldly-wise statesman. The new Brexit secretary David Davis, who argued that the UK will secure tariff-free access to the Single Market, has been charged with delivering his sunny vision. Environment secretary Andrea Leadsom, who called for reductions in agricultural subsidies, must now explain that to the farmers. And international trade secretary Liam Fox, who talked up the prospects of quickly hatching free trade treaties with non-EU countries, has been tasked with getting those deals signed.

The prime minister, former UK cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell tells Global Government Forum, “will have heard from David Davis and Liam Fox and Boris Johnson about the positive side of leaving and about how we can negotiate a very good deal… So they thought this was very possible, and I think she’s said to them: ‘Okay, go out and deliver, and good luck!’”

The ferrets in a sack strategy

These appointments insulate May from the inevitable disappointments and failures that will accompany Brexit – for the diverse Leave campaign made many conflicting promises to the electorate, and exaggerated the UK’s power in the forthcoming EU and trade negotiations. They also give her an opportunity to change the fundamental calculations underlying contemporary British politics, which hold that the referendum vote cannot be unwound.

Fox, Davis and Johnson are ambitious characters placed under huge pressure to deliver very challenging objectives, and their three departments have already begun scrapping over roles and responsibilities. To deliver Brexit, comments O’Donnell, the government must “work as a unified whole, and this will be difficult: these are three very strong characters, and this is a very, very big issue.” If the ‘three Brexiteers’ prove incapable of agreeing a common line, and Britain’s Brexit operation descends into interdepartmental warfare, then May will have the political cover to ditch all three and come to a more pragmatic settlement – an approach that one Whitehall observer calls her “ferrets in a sack strategy”.

Even if the outcome is not quite this apocalyptic, the three Brexiteers may come a cropper in their new jobs – enabling May to clear each from the battlefield without prompting a rebellion in Tory ranks. Davis is an inveterate rebel, and has previously quit the shadow cabinet in pursuit of his libertarian principles; as a backbencher before the referendum, he was taking legal action against Theresa May’s Home Office in a bid to block its plans on digital surveillance. Johnson’s tendency to offend foreign leaders is a major liability in his new job, which – conveniently for May – will keep him out of the country and far from the plotters of the Westminster tea rooms. And Fox has a long history of shooting himself in the foot: in recent years he’s been caught out over-claiming expenses, and giving a friend inappropriate access to the Ministry of Defence – an episode which cost him his job as defence secretary after just 18 months.

Paradoxically, by giving these three everything they’ve asked for, May has both strengthened her own position within the Tory party, and created the potential for a retreat from the worst possible outcomes of Brexit. “If the deal takes forever and turns out to be crap, she can blame them,” explains Jenkins.

Nonetheless, the referendum has given the Tories’ Brexiteers a mandate that May cannot publicly challenge; and since the poll, Eurosceptic ministers and campaigners have determinedly framed the referendum result as a call for the full repatriation of UK immigration policies – something that cannot be squared with membership of the Single Market. There’s no pressure to defer or soften Brexit from the Opposition Labour Party, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn is a lifelong Eurosceptic. And if the government did begin to waver then UKIP – whose squeeze of the Tory vote originally pushed Cameron into promising a referendum – could again become an electoral threat. So whilst May’s appointments are clever internal politics, the ‘ferrets in a sack’ strategy is more likely to undermine her political rivals than the move towards a full Brexit.

No swimming against the Brexit tsunami

Jenkins fears that the political dynamics won’t permit a reversal of the referendum decision. Imagine, he says, that in two years’ time the economy is sinking fast and the EU’s offering a terrible deal: that’s the “best case scenario for having another think – but how does she do it? She’s still got her rabid Eurosceptics on the backbenches; a tiny majority in Parliament; Corbyn on the Opposition bench. You can’t imagine the Tories going into the next election campaigning to remain, can you? It just doesn’t work.”

It appears that the PM has come to the same conclusion. For months, May squashed any suggestion that Britain will have to choose between membership of the Single Market and key Brexit aims such as controlling immigration and ending EU payments; Davis was publicly ticked off, and Fox’s department had to abruptly delete a press release suggesting that the UK could trade under WTO rules. But in her Sunday conference speech, May signalled that the UK is likely to end up outside the customs union and the mechanisms of the Single Market. “We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice,” she said, adding that Britain would win back its control over food packaging – an apparently minor detail that cannot be squared with membership of the Single Market.

Meanwhile, Johnson talked of “taking back control of our tariff schedules in Geneva, so that we can galvanise free trade” – something that would require Britain to exit the customs union and act as a full, independent member of the WTO. And Fox again talked up the UK’s prospects outside the customs union. At the time of writing, neither have – this time – been publicly slapped down by Number 10.

Hard political calculations

These positioning statements suggest that Theresa May has decided to plump for a ‘hard’ Brexit, in which the UK exits not just the EU but also the Single Market and customs union. In purely political terms, this is by far the safest option. For if May tried to broker a fudge with the EU, she’d cause outrage within her own party. And if she went into Article 50 negotiations – beginning the formal, two-year exit process – on a platform of remaining in the Single Market whilst imposing immigration controls, she’d be setting herself up for a defeat.

Her decision is not without risks. On Monday chancellor Phil Hammond warned of the economic “turbulence” to come, and May’s insistence that Scotland will not be allowed to block a Brexit deal sets up a major battle with Edinburgh’s SNP administration. But the PM is under heavy pressure from her own right-wing to go all-out for Brexit, and has almost no political cover for a softer line: the Opposition leader has called for her to trigger Article 50, and her own party’s pragmatic wing have been cowed by their referendum defeat.

May, a shrewd Westminster operator, has done what she can to insulate herself from the harmful outcomes of Brexit – speaking in favour of a Remain vote, and putting Brexit’s ministerial champions in the hot seat whilst retaining a tight grip of policy behind the scenes. If there is a substantial change in the mood of the country, she’s well positioned to embark on the U-turn of all U-turns. But the full consequences of Brexit will take years to emerge, and meanwhile the government will do its best to persuade people that things will turn out well. Given the shambolic state of the Opposition, they may well succeed – at least until the next general election, expected in 2020.

Theresa May believes that leaving the EU is a daft idea. But she is, above all, a Tory politician; and the Tory party’s best chances of remaining in government lie in coming together around a hard Brexit, then persuading the country that they’ve made it work. The new PM may regret the referendum verdict, and she may feel that a softer Brexit would work better for Britain. But there are hard political realities pushing her towards embracing the Brexiteer line. And Theresa May is a very, very realistic politician.

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Lord O’Donnell, former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, UK: Exclusive Interview

Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government: Exclusive Interview

UK government under pressure to set out Brexit ‘vision’

Finding the exit: the future of UK-EU relations

What Brexit has meant for the UK civil service so far?

A guide to Brexit, part 1: how Britain voted to leave the EU

A guide to Brexit, part 2: What’s the process for negotiating a British exit from the EU?

A guide to Brexit, part 3: Who’ll run the negotiations?

A guide to Brexit, part 4: Is Britain’s departure from the EU inevitable?

A guide to Brexit, part 5: What is the likely outcome of Brexit?

Brexit will be ‘largest legal, legislative and bureaucratic project in British history’, says former UK Treasury Solicitor


About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.


  1. Steve Peskin says:

    Sounds like, as ever, our politicians are putting Party before Country.. and that road probably leads to ruin. One day we’ll get a Statesman leading the country rather than a Politician running the country.

    • Trevor Horsley says:

      Alas… But there’s no “probably” in it. Examples worldwide show that putting party or political dogmatics before country always set a nation on the road to ruin. The only question is how far down that road a national leader or party leader is willing to go. Some may see Theresa May as a new Thatcher, but unlike Thatcher, May has already shown that she is not a lady who is “not for turning” . She’s turned once, from Remainer to Brexiteer; it is therefore not impossible that she could do it again…. or is that just wishful thinking ?

  2. rick aston says:

    I cannot understand why global government forum has a difficult time understanding the pm’s decision to go ahead with brexit, well let me explain, it is a small thing called democracy where the country has had a vote, the vote clearly called for britain to leave the eu,so we leave the eu, does that make it clearer for you, i have made it as simple as i could.

  3. Chris says:

    From where I am sitting an accurate view of the situation.

  4. eurotyke says:

    A vote based on distortions, misinformation and lies.
    Now the truth is coming out, it is clear that if the vote was re-run today it would go the other way, as demonstrated in the recent by-elections.
    But of course the antidemocratic brexiters will do all they can to prevent a 2nd vote…

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