Will Brexit Bring Down Theresa May's Government?

The Chequers Plan and Its Discontents

British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses a news conference during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, October 2017.  Francois Lenoir / REUTERS

Brexit was always going to involve a tricky tradeoff between satisfying the political pressures at home to reduce immigration and diversify the United Kingdom’s regulatory regime on the one hand, and facing the reality of life outside the European Union’s markets for a country deeply embedded in them on the other. This tradeoff has been compounded by another: Theresa May’s tenure as British prime minister has required her to navigate the tensions between Leavers and Remainers in her own parliamentary majority while negotiating with the European Union on the terms of Brexit. These various tensions have up to now been resolved by stalling. But the fast-approaching deadline for agreeing to the conditions for the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU and to move to the transitional phase of Brexit means that real choices have to be made. These choices have placed a time bomb under the May government.


The unravelling of the May premiership began with the special cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s country residence, Chequers, on July 6, a meeting which lasted through the weekend and produced an agreed Brexit White Paper. This document, which outlined the United Kingdom’s formal proposal for its relationship with Europe after Brexit, emerged more than two years after the referendum, 14 months after May formally informed the EU of her country’s intention to leave, and less than nine months before the official exit date next March. The White Paper proposes an awkward mix of high levels of integration in the European single market for goods, based on adherence to a “common rule book” in goods and a complex system of customs cooperation, alongside a greater British freedom to diverge in regulating services such as finance. May’s hope was that this proposal could prove a realistic starting point for negotiations with Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator for Brexit, in the run-up to March.

Yet even before the document had been translated—awkwardly—into the EU’s 22 other

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