Latest Issue

The extent of May’s Brexit plan is: “Come up with one”

It may be that a general election is the only way ahead for Britain

By Jay Elwes  

British Prime Minister Theresa May ©Matt Dunham/AP/Press Association Images

It will soon be five months since Britain voted to leave the European Union. Ask yourself this—in all that time, has any pro-Brexit commentator or politician offered anything like a substantial plan for how Britain can achieve a favourable post-Brexit settlement with the EU. Or have any of them suggested what might become of the 44 per cent of British exports that go to the continent?

The answer is no. Nobody has a plan. That goes for the government too, which has opted to hide behind the deadening mantra that it will offer “no running commentary” on Brexit.

No10 has effectively taken a vow of political silence. Briefings with government spokespeople have deteriorated into an absurd game of question and non-answer. Journalists ask what is going on and are told that the government doesn’t want to say.

It’s the same at Prime Minister’s Questions. Today Theresa May assured the Commons that the government is “preparing for the formal negotiations” with the EU, and that “we are getting on with the job.”

But perhaps the most revealing remark was when May told MPs that “Yes, we do have a plan… to deliver the best possible deal,” for Britain. Her plan, in other words, is to come up with a plan.

This is not to play down the recent deal with Nissan, where the car maker agreed to manufacture its new model at the Sunderland plant, or yesterday’s decision by Google to build a large new base in London and to employ 3,000 new staff. Both of these are excellent news.

Both are also beside the point. Britain needs an agreement over what will happen to the £220bn of exports that it sends to the EU each year. This is an entirely different matter and all else is window-dressing by comparison. But No10, which is developing an increasing reputation for control-freakery, says nothing on the subject.

The government is stuck. Because really the refusal to speak is due to there being nothing to say. The “no running commentary” line, and the absurd references to the card-sharp tactics of “not showing your hand” are wheeled out only because they are better than admitting that you have nothing to say.

Other countries don’t want to talk to us about trade. When Theresa May visited India earlier this month in search of deals, she received a lecture from Narendra Modi on the free movement of people. That wasn’t in the plan.

“There’s lots of chaos and we don’t understand what the position is,” Italy’s economic development minister, Carlo Calenda, said in a Bloomberg interview. The British government “needs to sit down, put its cards on the table and negotiate,” he said.

The Americans won’t talk to us until we have left the EU, and that goes for the Chinese too. The only person who seems to be working on a plan for Britain’s future is—to No10’s agony—Nigel Farage, the is-he-isn’t-he leader of Ukip, so memorably photographed with president-elect Trump in front of a wall of gold lamé.

It’s possible that Britain could make some sort of post-Brexit trade deal with the US. But a UK-US deal on the scale needed to off-set the loss of trade with the EU would be impossible. Trump, whose views are essentially nationalistic, wants to stimulate American industry—the way to do this is not by swamping US markets with British imports. The answer does not lie with the US. And really, it is uncertain whether an answer to Britain’s problems lies anywhere at all.

Back in the summer I wrote in these pages on the need for a further vote on Brexit. If the Supreme Court rules against the Government in December and Parliament is given a say on Article 50, then a vote in the Commons would be welcome. Perhaps then No10 could be forced to break its vow of silence and reveal the little it has so far achieved.

If that were to happen, then the impetus might well start to build for another vote—a General Election. This might prove to be the only way ahead for Britain. It would take a mandate of that scale to give May the political space she needs and perhaps then the government might make some real progress. At the moment, the strong sense is that Britain is going nowhere.


On the 17th of November, Prospect launched Brexit Britain: the trade challenge. A publication designed to act as a guide for parliamentarians, officials and businesses with a stake in the UK’s changing relationship with the world following Brexit. To see the complete contents of the report please click here.

For speaker and partnership opportunities, please contact

You can also receive the full “Brexit Britain: the trade challenge” report as a fully designed PDF document. To do so, simply enter your email below. You’ll receive your copy completely free—within minutes.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to

More From Prospect