Skip to main content

March 14, 2019: An anti-Brexit protester walks outside the Houses of Parliament in London.

HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

For nearly three years, British Prime Minister Theresa May tried and failed to bring Parliament on board with her plan to separate the nation from the European Union. Now, that’s someone else’s problem: June 7 was her last day as leader of the Conservative Party, two weeks after her tearful announcement that had done all she could, but now it’s up to a new prime minister to finish the job. Some of her most vocal critics, members of the so-called hard Brexit faction, are jockeying for the prime ministership, which is still technically Ms. May’s job until the new Conservative leader is chosen in late July.

It adds even more uncertainty to a Brexit timetable that’s been delayed several times. Under the EU and Britain’s latest agreement, Brexit takes place on Oct. 31. That gives Britons only a few months to find a new leader and reach a solid consensus about what a post-EU Britain looks like. And if Parliament fails again, it risks a “no deal” Brexit, a potentially catastrophic scenario for the nation’s economy. Here’s what you need to know about how we got here.


Why Brexit?

June 24, 2016: Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, celebrates and poses at a pro-Brexit gathering in London on the day of Britain's vote to leave the European Union.

Matt Dunham/The Associated Press

In 2016, then prime minister David Cameron rolled the dice on a referendum about whether to secede from the European Union, and Britons unexpectedly voted yes. Since then, the governing Conservative Party, led by Ms. May, has been at war with itself about how to go forward. On one side is Ms. May’s “soft Brexit” camp, which favours keeping some ties with Europe and, in particular, a compromise to allow freedom of movement between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. On the other side is the “hard Brexit” faction, which wants a complete break between Britain and the EU single market. Ms. May already triggered the mechanism to quit the union, Article 50, and anti-Brexit supporters’ proposals to hold a new referendum haven’t gained ground. So now it’s just a question of when Brexit happens and how. Many believe the worst-case scenario is a “no-deal” Brexit, in which there’s no new trade agreement to replace EU membership: That means gridlock at the border, shortages of food and goods and the flight of corporate headquarters from Britain.

Story continues below advertisement


The options Parliament has rejected so far

The May deal, Part I

Nov. 15, 2018: European Council President Donald Tusk holds Britain's draft withdrawal agreement with the EU during a press conference in Brussels.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

It takes a year and a half for Ms. May to hammer out the first draft withdrawal agreement with the EU, which is unveiled on Nov. 13, 2018. The deal – a 584-page agreement and a 26-page political declaration – is quickly approved by Brussels, and sets a divorce date of March 29, 2019, but keeps Britain inside the EU single market until the end of 2020. But this deal provokes an angry backlash in Ms. May’s government. The main sticking point is a “backstop” plan to keep Britain in a customs union and avoid the return of a hard Irish border: The Northern Irish-based Democratic Unionist Party, which Ms. May depends on for continued support of her government, opposes the backstop because, while it would leave the Irish border open, it could create impediments for Northern Irish trade with the rest of the U.K. Ms. May survives an exodus of top cabinet ministers and a challenge to her leadership of the Conservative Party, but on Jan. 15 her deal meets a historic defeat: 432 against, 202 in favour, the worst government defeat ever in the House of Commons.

The Brady alternative

MPs vote on an array of seven non-binding amendments to Ms. May’s deal. Most of them are defeated, but two key ones pass. One rejects the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit, in which Britain would leave the union as scheduled without a replacement trade deal. Another – dubbed the “Brady amendment” after the Tory backbencher who introduced it, Graham Brady – gave Ms. May a mandate to go back to the EU and ask for a new deal changing the backstop, which the EU didn’t want to do because they thought the issue had already been settled months earlier. Ms. May seeks Parliament’s support for her negotiating strategy in a non-binding vote on Feb. 14, but she loses 303 to 258. For many Tories, the strategy is no good because she didn’t rule out walking away from talks with the EU and allowing a no-deal Brexit.

The Malthouse compromise

Seeking to find common ground between the hard- and soft-Brexit factions, housing minister Kit Malthouse proposes offering the EU two new options, both of which would extend the departure timeline to December, 2021. Plan A would establish a U.K.-EU free trade deal instead of the backstop; Plan B would be a “managed no-deal Brexit,” which would soften the economic blow of restored trade barriers. One EU official describes the Malthouse compromise as a “bonkers” plan and it doesn’t gain any traction.

The May deal, Part II

March 12, 2019: Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to lawmakers in Parliament.

JESSICA TAYLOR/The Associated Press

Ms. May brings a revised version of her deal back to Parliament on March 12 after a new agreement with the EU that would reduce the risk of Britain being stuck in the backstop if no new trade deal was reached. But it isn’t enough to mollify critics of the backstop, and the motion is defeated 391 to 242. A further decision by the House speaker bars Ms. May from bringing back the deal for a third vote, unless she makes substantial changes first. MPs do agree to send Ms. May back to the EU and ask for more time. Her preferred new date for Brexit is June 30, but the EU settles on a tighter deadline: April 12 if Ms. May can’t get her modified withdrawal agreement approved by MPs, and May 22 if she can.

The eight unacceptable options

On March 25, MPs take unprecedented steps to wrest the Brexit file out of the Prime Minister’s hands, voting 329 to 302 to hold non-binding “indicative votes” to weigh support for alternatives. The eight options include a second Brexit referendum, revoking Brexit, staying in the EU customs union, the Malthouse compromise or a no-deal Brexit. In votes on March 27 and April 1, none of the alternative options find a consensus.

The May deal, Part III

Ahead of the third showdown over her Brexit plan, Ms. May promises to quit as Prime Minister if MPs vote for the withdrawal agreement, hoping this will allay critics. On March 29, MPs vote just on the withdrawal agreement, not the political declaration that would lay out the future U.K.-EU relationship. Had the vote passed, Britain would have won the sought-after extension to May 22. Instead, it fails, throwing Britain’s economic future into more chaos.

Delay, delay, delay

After her third defeat, Ms. May is under a tight deadline: Get an extension from the EU by April 12, or allow a no-deal Brexit to happen on that date. She asks the EU to delay until June 30, but after emergency talks they give her even more time: Oct. 31, with a review of the terms in June. The deal, which British lawmakers quickly approve, still leaves room for an exit before October as long as Parliament agrees on it.

Story continues below advertisement

No May by June

Watch: Ms. May was visibly emotional as she delivered her May 24 resignation speech at 10 Downing St. Reuters

On May 21, Ms. May brings MPs a fourth Brexit plan, one that allows MPs to vote on whether a second Brexit referendum should be held. She also promises to give MPs a say in whether Britain should stay in an EU customs agreement, and to harmonize EU and U.K. rules on worker’s rights and the environment. But the hard-Brexit camp meets the new plan with skepticism and renews calls for her to resign. Days later, she does just that, promising to step down as party leader on June 7 and saying “it is now clear to me that it is in the best interests of the country for a new Prime Minister to lead” the Brexit effort. She remains prime minister until a new Conservative leader is chosen, a process due to finish by late July.


More reading

Globe and Mail reports from Europe

In Aberdeen, Brexit is a storm of bad news – but it could fill the sails of Scotland’s independence movement

Brexit is making Irish reunification a real possibility

‘Brexit is not helping anybody’: Britain’s looming EU split causing havoc in business investment, manufacturing

Fearing Brexit doomsday, Britons stockpile supplies and learn to grow their own food

In the English town that pottery built, workers fear Brexit will shatter a way of life

Commentary and analysis

Simon Usherwood: Theresa May isn’t responsible for Britain’s woes. Brexit is

Timothy Garton Ash: Give a good and fair Brexit deal one last chance – for Europe’s sake

Eric Reguly: Brexit killed off the idea of copy-cat departures in the EU, but not Euroskepticism

Ted Fraser: In leaving Europe, the U.K. has lost Scotland



Compiled by Globe staff

With reports from Paul Waldie, Associated Press and Reuters

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter