On August 3, 1914, the night before the start of World War I, the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, famously remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, in which 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the European Union, many among the British electorate felt that the lights of economic integration had been extinguished and that dark times lay ahead for the United Kingdom.
The febrile, early post-referendum atmosphere in Westminster was infused with recriminations over the toxic referendum campaign and the divisions within the government. A basic negotiation principle is to have unity on your side, and this was sorely missing—an inauspicious basis for embarking on what will be the most important and complex negotiation in the country’s history.
But amid the tumult, there were some positive signs. A new Conservative leader, Theresa May, emerged from the political chaos and quickly showed the sort of steel that many party members admired in the United Kingdom’s only previous female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. After assuming the prime ministership in July, May dismissed potentially discordant ministers and appointed a finely balanced new cabinet. Although she herself had favored remaining in the EU, she coined the mantra “Brexit means Brexit” and wisely named a former minister of state for Europe and “leave” advocate, David Davis, as secretary of state for exiting the European Union. The new secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, is another Brexiteer, as is May’s most controversial appointment: Boris Johnson as foreign secretary.
Commentators from around the world, not to mention the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, were quick to dismiss this last appointment, quoting some of Johnson’s gaffes, which are the stock-in-trade of this former London mayor and newspaper columnist. But his appointment may prove to be a smart move. Johnson, who successfully led the Brexit campaign, draws a distinction between opposing the hegemony May 2016 poll revealed that 52 percent of Londoners approved of his performance as mayor, although a post-referendum poll has shown a decline in his popularity.) May recognizes this and doubtless will be looking to him to engage thoughtfully with foreign leaders and, eventually, to help sell the final Brexit agreement domestically.
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