In a Bid to ‘Take Back Control,’ Britain Lost It

Brexit was supposed to be about the U.K. taking charge of its future. That didn’t happen.

An anti-Brexit protester demonstrates in front of Parliament.
An anti-Brexit protester demonstrates in front of Parliament. (Dylan Martinez / Reuters)

The central idea behind the Brexit referendum was for Britain to “take back control”—over its laws, its money, its immigration system. For those who campaigned in favor of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, Brexit would mark the beginning of a new, more global Britain. By leaving the EU, they argued, they would be returning power from Brussels back to lawmakers in Westminster and, by extension, to the British people themselves.

But if the past two years have demonstrated anything, it’s that Britain hasn’t taken back control. It has lost control entirely.

More than 1,000 days after the U.K. voted to leave the EU, the country’s future is still shrouded in uncertainty. Its exit date from the bloc is still unknown. Its parliament is hopelessly divided. Who will be leading the country in the weeks and months ahead is no longer clear. No one, least of all British lawmakers, seems to know how Brexit will happen, or even whether it will happen at all. Nearly every political figure or institution of note in London—including Prime Minister Theresa May, who has lost control of Brexit to both her party’s right wing and to Parliament, and the House of Commons itself, which has not been able to agree on any single option for leaving the EU—has, when seeking to exert control, proved to have none.

Much like Brexit itself, Britain’s loss of control wasn’t a moment, but a process. It began two years ago, when May embarked on a series of negotiations with the bloc during which her government, without a plan or, soon, a governing majority to support one, appeared at best unprepared and at worst unsure of what it was even asking for.

The British wielded little control over the negotiations, from the timetable that dictated how they would take place (the EU ruled out beginning talks until London formally triggered Article 50, the bloc’s time-limited exit procedure) to the sequencing of the talks themselves (which was also set by the bloc). What little control Britain did have, it often squandered. May’s decision to preemptively invoke Article 50 is now widely regarded as a strategic error. Her failure to pursue a Brexit strategy that could pass muster with both her colleagues in Westminster and her allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who prop up her Conservative Party’s wafer-thin majority, is another.

This loss of control didn’t end when British and EU negotiators reached a provisional agreement on the terms of the U.K.’s withdrawal late last year. Instead of fighting with the EU, May’s government began fighting with itself. The prime minister’s deal—the only one the EU said it would consider—was twice rejected in the House of Commons by historic margins. Facing the prospect of a third defeat on her deal, and with no parliamentary support for the country’s crashing out of the EU, May was forced to go back to Brussels and ask to delay Britain’s March 29 exit date.

Here, too, the decision-making power belonged to the EU: A short extension will be granted until May 22 if the House of Commons agrees to support May’s deal by March 29; if it does not, the extension will last until April 12. A longer extension is conditional on Britain taking part in the upcoming European Parliament elections, which May has so far ruled out.

Throughout the negotiations, various interests have tried to exercise influence—from the hard-line Brexit proponents within May’s own party and her Northern Irish partners advocating against her deal, to the opposition members of Parliament calling for a second referendum. Though their efforts have worked to stymie parliamentary support of May’s deal, they have done little to achieve their respective aims.

The chaos was compounded this week when the British Parliament, in a bid to end the Brexit stalemate, made the historic decision to strip the government of its powers to set the parliamentary agenda so that it could hold a series of nonbinding votes on Brexit alternatives. The plan ultimately backfired Wednesday night after eight different options—including maintaining a close economic relationship with the EU, a second referendum, and revoking Article 50—failed to achieve the support of a majority.

Having lost control of her party and her cabinet, as well as her authority in Parliament, May did have one last card to play: her own leadership. On Wednesday night, the prime minister pledged to her Conservative Party colleagues that she would end her premiership early in exchange for her opponents’ agreeing to support her deal. “I know there is a desire for a new approach—and new leadership—in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations,” May told Conservative lawmakers at a meeting in Parliament, “and I won’t stand in the way of that.”

With few lawmakers signaling their willingness to shift in support of the prime minister’s deal, even her own resignation seems to be out of her control. Now it’s up to Parliament to reach a consensus on May’s deal or find an alternative.