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.
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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.
Alison McGovern: Let’s have another Brexit vote
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.