Brexit – The Full Story
11 min read
Brexit is finally over. We have laid out the turbulent events of the last five years in full.
The United Kingdom votes to leave the EU by 51.9% to 48.1%. Leave won 53.4% of the vote in England, 44.2% in Northern Ireland, 38% in Scotland, and 52.5% in Wales.
David Cameron announces his resignation as leader of the Conservative Party and PM, saying he thinks “the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction”. Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May run to replace him, while Boris Johnson announces he will not run.
Hilary Benn is sacked from the Labour frontbench and 20 colleagues resign protesting Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of leadership on Brexit, forcing a vote of no confidence by the Parliamentary Labour Party.
May first uses the phrase “Brexit means Brexit” at a campaign event in Birmingham. Later that day, Leadsom drops out of the Conservative leadership race leaving May as the victor.
May becomes Prime Minister and creates the Department for Exiting the European Union, to be led by David Davis and Olly Robbins as permanent secretary. Other key Brexiteers are appointed to Cabinet.
Michel Barnier is announced as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
Corbyn beats challenger Owen Smith to remain leader of the Labour Party with 61.8% of the vote.
May delivers her conference speech, saying it is for the “government alone” to trigger Article 50, that it will be invoked “no later” than March 31 2017, and ruling out the Norway or Switzerland models.
The High Court rules that the UK government needs parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50, leading to the three judges involved to be branded “Enemies of the People” by the Daily Mail. The case is taken to the Supreme Court.
MPs sign off on May’s Brexit timetable, with Labour successfully pushing for the government to publish its Brexit plan before March 31. David Davis promises that MPs will get a final vote on the deal.
Ivan Rogers, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, quits over claims his warnings about Brexit have been ignored.
May sets out her Brexit vision in her Lancaster House speech, including leaving the single market, ending freedom of movement, and ending ECJ jurisdiction. The claim ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is heard for the first time.
The Supreme Court agrees with the High Court that parliamentary approval is needed to trigger Article 50.
MPs vote by 494 to 122 to trigger Article 50 at third reading.
Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, delivers a letter from Theresa May to European Council President Donald Tusk, invoking Article 50. This would make March 29 2019 the day the UK is expected to leave the EU.
Tusk sets out his draft Brexit guidelines, including the ”phased approach” – where the UK’s ‘divorce settlement’ must be agreed before talks on a future relationship begin. The settlement is estimated to be over £50bn at the time.
May announces a snap general election, hoping to increase her 17-seat working majority and “strengthen [her] hand” in the Brexit negotiations. Opinion polls give the Conservatives a 21 point lead.
The general election delivers a hung parliament, with the Tories losing 13 seats despite securing their highest share of the vote since 1983. Northern Ireland’s Leave-supporting DUP makes a deal with the Conservatives and its votes allow May to stay in power.
The first Brexit negotiation talks take place between Barnier and Davis, where they agree to prioritise residency rights. The UK concedes to the EU’s demands about the ‘phased approach’ to talks.
May delivers her Florence speech, designed to assuage EU fears, and seen by some Brexiteers as a climbdown on earlier tough rhetoric. It commits to maintaining high regulatory standards, paying into EU budgets until 2020, and proposes a two-year implementation period.
Tory conference concludes with a disastrous speech from May, plagued by a cough and the sign behind her falling down.
The EU and UK reach a partial breakthrough: protecting reciprocal rights for citizens living abroad, an estimated ‘divorce payment’ of £35–39bn, and no hard border on the island of Ireland, leading to the first discussion of the Irish ‘backstop’. May stresses that “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
The European Council publishes its negotiating directives, including that the UK will remain part of the EU single market and customs union during the transition period. Negotiations continue.
May’s Mansion House speech expands on the UK position, including recognition that the ‘level playing field’ rules will be more tightly binding. May introduces five vague “tests” for any deal.
Tusk freezes negotiations on other issues until the UK comes up with a solution on the Irish border, saying the approach from now on will be “Ireland first”.
A draft joint withdrawal deal is published, of which 75% is agreed, including a 21-month transition period ending on 31 December 2020, and the principle of a “backstop” keeping Northern Ireland under EU law where regulation diverges. The deal comes under attack from Brexiteers, with May accused of acquiescing to too many EU demands on immigration and fisheries.
The UK proposes that the entire UK would enter into a temporary customs arrangement with the EU if needed as a ‘backstop’ to protect the open border on the island of Ireland.
Barnier rejects the proposal, saying that the four freedoms are indivisible.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar accepts the Irish border question will be postponed until October 2018, allowing other negotiations to proceed.
The cabinet meets at Chequers to finalise the government’s Brexit plan.
Brexit secretary David Davis resigns.
Foreign secretary Boris Johnson resigns, with Jeremy Hunt replacing him. Dominic Raab replaces Davis as Brexit secretary. In total, seven ministers resign over the Chequers plan over nine days.
After a series of agreements are published, Barnier states that 80% of the Brexit deal is now complete.
The Chequers plan is published, including a common rulebook on state aid, the maintenance of high regulatory standards, and a ‘facilitated’ customs arrangement in Northern Ireland.
After intensified negotiations, Barnier warns that a trade deal will not be reached by the October EU summit and that there will need to be an emergency summit in November or December.
At a joint press conference, Raab and Barnier recommit to meeting the October deadline and state that progress has been made.
May is ‘humiliated’ at a summit in Salzburg, as EU leaders reject her Chequers plan, with Tusk implying that she is trying to have her cake and eat it.
Intense negotiations continue, with the Irish border proving to be the main bone of contention. The EU eventually commits to trying to extend the backstop to the whole of the UK.
Britain and the EU agree a Brexit deal, with a £39m divorce payment, a transition period to 31 December 2020, and an all UK indefinite customs union ‘backstop’ arrangement, where Northern Ireland had to remain in regulatory alignment with the EU and Britain couldn’t agree other trade deals – unless a satisfactory solution to the Irish border is found.
After a five-hour meeting, May’s Cabinet approves the agreement – but Brexit secretary Dominic Raab later quits over “fatal flaws”. Eight other ministers resign.
The EU27 leaders approve the agreement.
Following Labour’s use of a ‘humble address’ on November 13 to try to force the government to publish Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s legal advice, MPs vote to find the government in contempt of Parliament. Parliament then passes an amendment by Dominic Grieve forcing the government to set out a plan within 21 days if May cannot get her deal passed.
Facing an embarrassing rebellion from her own MPs, May postpones the Commons vote on her deal.
May meets with Angela Merkel and other EU leaders to try and renegotiate the deal – this is rejected.
May wins a vote of no confidence among Tory MPs by 200 to 117 – but promises she will not lead the party into the next general election.
First ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement struck between the EU and May. It is voted down with a new parliamentary record of 230 against it.
There are two more meaningful votes on the deal, which are defeated by margins of 149 and 58. On the last vote May drops the Political Declaration from the vote altogether but it still doesn’t pass.
May writes to European Council President Donald Tusk, asking to extend Article 50 until June 30. Following a European Council meeting the next day, EU27 leaders agreed to grant an extension but with two other dates: 22 May 2019, should the Withdrawal Agreement gain approval from MPs; or 12 April 2019, should the Withdrawal Agreement not be approved.
EU agrees to extend Article 50 until October 31 but the UK must take part in the EU elections. European Council President Donald Tusk warns British politicians “please do not waste this time”.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party wins the most seats at the European elections. The next day May announces she will stand down and says in an emotional statement that she feels “deep regret” that she had been unable to deliver Brexit.
Boris Johnson wins the Tory leadership contest and becomes PM.
Johnson prorogues Parliament.
Tory Dr Phillip Lee defects to the Lib Dems and Johnson loses the majority he inherited from May. MPs vote 328 to 301 to remove no-deal Brexit, which leads to the whip being removed from 21 Tories including leadership challenger Rory Stewart and Winston Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames. Minister Amber Rudd quits the party in protest.
Johnson says he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask for an extension.
The Supreme Court rules that Johnson’s advice to the Queen that Parliament should be prorogued for five weeks had not been lawful.
Johnson agrees a new deal with the EU, which creates a legal customs border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but with actual checks taking place between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Northern Ireland would follow EU rules on goods.
Johnson’s deal does not pass: the DUP votes against it, saying it creates a border in the Irish Sea. The ‘Benn Act’ forces him to ask European Council president Donald Tusk for an extension. A few days later a new deal is agreed with the EU which removes the backstop.
EU agrees a further Brexit extension to January 31 2020.
MPs approve a general election, which becomes the first to be held in December since 1923.
The date Britain was due to leave the EU passes. Commemorative Brexit coins are melted down.
Johnson wins a crushing general election victory on the back of a slogan “get Brexit done” by 31 January 2020. Jeremy Corbyn announces he will stand down as leader of the Labour Party.
Johnson signs the Withdrawal Agreement.
At 11pm, the UK leaves the European Union and marks the moment with a party in Parliament Square. Britain enters the transition phase, in which it’s intended to work out a future relationship, including a trade deal, by the end of the year.
The first round of negotiations between the EU and UK takes place in Brussels. The opening agenda covers 11 topics, including trade in goods, transport, energy, fisheries and the level playing field.
Almost a month later than scheduled, second round talks begin with Barnier and chief negotiator David Frost over video conference.
At the start of the month an almighty row erupts among MPs and between the EU and UK when news breaks that the government will introduce an Internal Markets Bill to overrule parts of the UK’s legally binding Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. It would give ministers powers to amend how the UK could implement the pre-agreed Northern Ireland Protocol.
The EU starts legal proceedings against the UK over the PM’s plan to put in place measures that would allow him to break international law.
A heavy defeat for the government on the Internal Markets Bill in the House of Lords as they remove sections that would allow ministers to break international law and override parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that relate to Northern Ireland.
Barnier arrives back in London to resume talks, which are now in the very final stages if a deal is to be hammered out.
Amid well publicised orders of pizza and late night sittings, a member of the EU’s Brexit negotiating team Stefaan de Rynck said there are still “significant” gaps on fisheries and the level playing field, adding: “The outcome is uncertain.”
Ping-pong begins on the Internal Markets Bill as the Commons debates and tries to modify changes made by the Lords, who voted it down.
The UK takes its threat to breach the Withdrawal Agreement off the table and announces that EU officials can station themselves in Northern Ireland to oversee the working of the Northern Irish protocol. U.K. officials insist these moves are not linked to a free trade deal with the EU.
Transition period ends.
Words by Georgina Bailey and Kate Proctor. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall.
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