Brexit imposed severe structural constraints—but a better leader could have navigated them with far more skillby J Portes and A Menon / May 24, 2019 / Leave a comment
“Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it.” These words, uttered by Theresa May on 11th July 2016, and oft repeated since, might come to serve as a damning political epithet. And while generations of historians will have fun picking over the entrails of this extraordinary period in our history, it is not too early to offer preliminary thoughts as to whether May’s failure to deliver the one thing she consistently promised to deliver was the result of her own failures, or can be attributed to other, perhaps structural constraints. Spoiler alert. We lean towards the former.
But let’s consider first the case for the defence. For all the claims to the contrary made by the Leave campaign, delivering Brexit was never going to be easy. For one thing, leaving an organisation as complex as the EU and one whose impact on national life—as Eurosceptics have rightly argued for years—was far greater and more intrusive than a mere “common market,” was always going to be fiendishly difficult. For another, the legal process for withdrawal—the infamous Article 50—is inherently unrealistic, setting a two year deadline and making no provision for the agreement of a future relationship prior to exit.
Then there were the domestic constraints. First, whatever the rhetoric about the biggest majority ever secured for anything, the 52-48 revealed a country profoundly divided over Brexit. What is more, the UK had voted for Brexit but not for any particular form of Brexit. As one of us pointed out even before the referendum, the “Condorcet Paradox” means that for any possible Brexit option (or Remain), there may be another which is preferred by the majority of the population. Arguably, even before the prime minister set about securing one, there was never a Brexit that “works for everyone.”
Crucially, however, we never got a chance to find out. After her unexpected coronation, May could have attempted to find a consensus on Brexit that, while not universally popular, might have been grudgingly accepted as representing the country’s centre of political gravity.
Think back to that summer of 2016. At that point, most of those who voted Remain accepted that they’d lost and we were leaving; most Leave voters wanted a close economic relationship with the EU. Given the way the UK political system functions,…