May's Brexit Mastery

Time for the United Kingdom to Move On

Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May, who is due to take over as prime minister on Wednesday, waves as she leaves after a cabinet meeting at number 10 Downing Street, in central London, Britain July 12, 2016. Peter Nicholls / Reuters

The quadrennial excitement of the Euro soccer competition, the green lawns of Wimbledon, and the racetrack at Silverstone provided three weeks of distraction from the consequences of the United Kingdom’s June 23 referendum. Prime Minister David Cameron was resigning, yes, but nothing would happen until his successor was in place, and it would take months for the country’s political parties, all in crisis, to select new leaders. Some supporters of staying in the European Union fancied using the lull to hold a second referendum to confirm the first, which was not binding. Demoralizing threats kept coming—from George Soros, from the IMF, from others—about the cost of withdrawal. Even the pro-Brexit camp seemed suddenly confused about the economic benefits of leaving the EU. Many started to imagine a withdrawal from the union pushed to such a distant future that it would never actually happen.

Time accelerated on July 12, though, when Tory Home Secretary Theresa May surged to the position of prime minister and declared unreservedly that she would implement Brexit. Her instincts may have been against it, but she promised that she would honor the vote and that she would be able to turn Brexit into a favorable arrangement for Britain. It was a stroke of political genius, first because the United Kingdom is a democracy and the vote ought to be acknowledged, and second because negotiations with the EU could be relatively easy and mutually beneficial.

Participants hold a British Union flag and an EU flag during a pro-EU referendum event at Parliament Square in London, Britain June 19, 2016.
Participants hold a British Union flag and an EU flag during a pro-EU referendum event at Parliament Square in London, Britain June 19, 2016.  Neil Hall / Reuters
The results of the Brexit referendum have opened the doors of power to May, an unsentimental politician with a career that reminds one of a Supreme Court judge—a role in which one displays competency without giving offense. In the campaign leading to the referendum, for example, she notoriously favored the United Kingdom’s remaining in the EU but declined to burn political capital by defending her position. She is now similarly poised to give Britons their “exit” cake and allow them to eat the “remain” too.

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