The Slatest

This Week in Brexit: Theresa May Had One Job

The EU star flag, one star blinking, laid over a photo of Theresa May on the verge of tears.
Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement outside 10 Downing Street on May 24 in London. The prime minister has announced that she will resign on Friday, June 7. Animation by Slate. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

Good gravy, a lot of Brexit happened this week. The big news is that Prime Minister Theresa May announced her resignation Friday morning, but first let’s look back at how we got to this point, in chronological order.

Last Friday in Brexit: When we left off last Thursday, Theresa May had just met with the 1922 Committee—the group of Tory backbenchers who oversee party leadership contests—and promised to lay out a timetable for her resignation in early June, after she took another shot at trying to get Parliament to pass the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with Europe, which Parliament has already rejected three times. After losing the support of hard-line Brexiteers in her own party, May launched talks with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in early April to try to find a compromise that could get Labour to support the agreement.

On Friday, those talks were pronounced officially dead. Naturally, each side blamed the other. Corbyn said that May had been unwilling to compromise on several key points, and that in any case, it was pointless to try to make a deal with the prime minister who might be replaced at any moment. May said that Labour can’t figure out what stance it actually wants to take on Brexit, with Corbyn under pressure from party members demanding a second referendum. There’s probably some truth to both these arguments.

Monday in Brexit: Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage got a milkshake thrown at him in Newcastle.

Tuesday in Brexit: Despite the collapse of her talks with Corbyn, May wanted to press on with her plan to have Parliament vote again on the withdrawal agreement in early June. She delivered a speech outlining a “new Brexit deal” with 10 new points to win over skeptics. The plan had a little something for everybody: Brexiteers got a guarantee that Britain would find an alternative to the controversial “Irish backstop”—which would keep the U.K. in an indefinite customs union with Europe—by the end of 2020. May’s Northern Irish coalition partners in the Democratic Unionist Party got a guarantee that Northern Ireland wouldn’t be split off from U.K. customs territory. Labour got guarantees that Britain would stay in alignment with European rules on workers rights and environmental protection. And Remainers in Labour and the smaller parties got a plan to hold a vote in Parliament on whether to subject the deal to a public referendum.

But none of these groups was actually appeased, and the rejections of the New Brexit Deal started coming almost before May finished speaking.

Wednesday in Brexit: All day, there were rumors that May was about to announce her resignation. Several key members of her Cabinet told her they would not support her deal, which is an indirect way of telling her to resign. (The problem is that many of these Cabinet ministers would like her job and so don’t actually want to be seen as holding the knife.) House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, a Brexiteer who had been May’s chief rival in the 2016 contest to become prime minister, resigned from the Cabinet.

Under normal circumstances, the party might have held a vote of no confidence to remove May as leader. But they couldn’t do that, because they already tried it last December, and party rules specify that they can’t hold another vote within a year. There’s been a growing movement to change that rule in order to oust May, and on Wednesday the 1922 Committee met to discuss the matter. Demonstrating a flair for the dramatic, the committee members voted on whether to change the rules, sealed the votes in an envelope, and said they would open the envelope on Friday if she had not yet announced her resignation.

Also, Nigel Farage was reportedly trapped on his campaign bus by potential milkshakers.

Thursday in Brexit: Britain held its election for the European Parliament. This vote was never supposed to happen—the country was supposed to be out of the EU by now—and the newly elected MEPs may not sit for very long. But still, the vote will give citizens a chance to vent their frustrations at this mess.

The election is expected to be a disaster for the two main parties. His recent difficulties with chilled beverages notwithstanding, Farage and his Brexit Party are expected to do well, siphoning off Conservative voters incensed at the party’s failure to deliver Brexit. Labour is also expected to lose votes to smaller parties with less ambiguous stances.

Most of the other countries in Europe are voting this weekend, and results won’t be announced until Sunday.

Friday in Brexit: Speaking in front of 10 Downing Street, May finally announced her resignation, telling the country, “I believe it was right to persevere, even when the odds against success seemed high. But it is now clear to me that it is in the best interests of the country for a new prime minister to lead that effort.”

May will resign as Conservative Party leader on June 7 and then remain as prime minister until a successor is chosen. This also means she will still be in office when Donald Trump visits the U.K. next week. Given Trump’s past treatment of May, and his stated preference for Boris Johnson—now a leading candidate for prime minister—it seems likely he will insert himself into the drama.

As June Thomas noted on Slate this morning, it’s hard to imagine that any other leader will have better luck than May resolving the Brexit impasse.

Days until next deadline: 161