The story of Brexit starts on Thursday 23rd June 2016, when Prime Minister David Cameron allowed a referendum in the UK to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union.
One year before the referendum, on 7th May 2015, the Conservative Party under David Cameron won a majority of seats in the UK Parliament (36.9% of votes, 331 seats out of a total of 650). However, the recently formed United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won nearly 4 million votes, a percentage of 12.6%. Britain’s direct, uninominal voting system (“first past the post”) meant that this high number and high percentage won the UKIP only one seat in Parliament. In contrast, with only 4.7% of the votes, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 56 seats, and with just 0.6% of the votes the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP) won 8 seats.
David Cameron, whose intention was to remain in the EU, was aware of an anti-European feeling in the UK and believed that the referendum in June 2016 would be won by the “Remain” side and would put an end to the demand for British independence from the EU.
Members of the leading political parties were free to support either the Leave or the Remain sides. A significant number of Conservative politicians spoke in favour of Leave as did a smaller number of the opposition Labour Party.
The (albeit slim) victory of the Leave campaign (51.9% leave vs. 48.1% remain) announced on 24th June 2016 sent shockwaves throughout Britain.
The result was divisive on a national basis with England and Wales voting to leave, but Scotland and Northern Ireland both in favour of remaining in the EU. The age of voters also highlighted different positions: the older segment of the population (45+) voted to leave whereas younger voters (18-45 years) were clearly in favour of remaining.
David Cameron accepted responsibility for what he considered a political mistake and resigned as Prime Minister to be replaced by Theresa May.
After the Referendum
In March 2017 Prime Minister Theresa May triggered “Article 50” of the Treaty of the European Union. This article states that “Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”. The two-year period allowed for negotiating the “divorce” ended on 29th March 2019, but as the Prime Minister’s proposal had been strongly rejected three times by the British Parliament this date was initially extended to 12th April and then further extended to 31st October 2019 (and finally extended again to 31st January of this year).
Prime Minister May’s difficulty in drawing up a proposal that Parliament would accept reflected different positions among its members. Some MPs were in favour of a “hard Brexit”, breaking most of the ties between the UK and the EU with the UK leaving the single market and the European Customs Union. Under a hard Brexit the UK would need to set up its own trade deals. Others were in favour of a “soft Brexit”, under which the UK would remain as close as possible to the EU, stay in the Customs Union and guarantee the rights of EU citizens to live in the UK as well as the rights of UK citizens to live in EU states. Others again (the Liberal Democrats and part of the Labour party) were in favour of a No-Brexit with a second referendum.
Unable to reach an agreement in the British Parliament, Theresa May resigned as leader of the Conservative Party on 7th June 2019. On 23rd July Boris Johnson won the election for party leader and the Queen appointed him as the UK’s new Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson takes the helm
Johnson’s simple political slogan was “get Brexit done”. Convinced that the EU would bend to his strong approach, he declared his willingness to accept a “no-deal Brexit” (leaving the EU without any agreed terms for the movement of goods, services, people and capital) and promised that the UK would leave the EU by 31st October. At the end of August, Johnson attempted to “prorogue” (suspend) parliament from 10th September to 14th October, hoping to limit the time available for parliament to block a no-deal Brexit. The supreme court pronounced this unlawful and parliament was not suspended.
In early September a number of defections from the Conservative Party, including Boris’s brother Jo Johnson, left his government without a majority.
In October Parliament was dissolved and elections announced for 12th December. Johnson’s firm position (“get Brexit done”) clearly convinced a sufficient number of voters as the Conservative Party won its strongest majority since 1987.
The UK finally left the EU on 31st January of this year and its 73 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament), elected only in May 2019 said farewell to their European colleagues and left the European Parliament.
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