by Henrique Laitenberger

When the definitive history of Brexit is written, many will bear their share of the responsibility – from David Cameron and Boris Johnson to Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn. However, two people are generally underappreciated in this tale so far: Prime Minister Theresa May and her formerly closest adviser, Nick Timothy.  

Mere months separate the United Kingdom from exiting the European Union without a deal – despite widespread agreement that this would be disastrous. To understand how it is truly possible that “no deal” is still on the cards, one must return to the fateful autumn of 2016 when the British Brexit strategy was decided.  

Back then, almost total ignorance reigned within the UK Government about what withdrawing from the EU would entail. Just how expansive this information gap was has been chronicled by Sunday Times reporter Tim Shipman. In his book “Fall Out”, he quotes a civil servant verbatim: “It is not possible to underestimate the level of knowledge in the cabinet [in autumn 2016]”.1 As the initial turmoil after the vote subsided, ministers were only gradually waking up to the harsh realities of Brexit. 

The confusion prevailing in Whitehall left the grand question facing the country open: what would Brexit look like? Civil servants, barred from preparing potential exit scenarios under David Cameron, had no blueprints to offer to ministers. The Leave campaigners had no plan either: they had deliberately avoided any concrete policy commitments, instead suggesting that Britain could leave the EU at no cost whatsoever. This was both danger and opportunity: in the wake of a narrow result, there was no definition of Brexit cast into stone. The meaning of 24 June 2016 was still up for grabs. At this crucial moment of uncertainty, two people stepped forward to fill this interpretational void: Theresa May and her trusted adviser Nick Timothy. 

Together, they decided to centre Brexit around two cast-iron principles: first, ending free movement of people. Secondly, becoming independent of EU law. On paper, this made sense: immigration was the dominant issue of the referendum, as Brexiters stirred and capitalised on fears that the country was creaking under the burden posed by 3 million EU citizens and even more to come. Opposition to the European Court of Justice had in turn long been a key doctrine of British Eurosceptics. To them, nothing embodied the UK’s loss of sovereignty more than European judges and laws having the final say in the British legal system. To appease Eurosceptics was also politically shrewd: a Remain voter herself, May needed the credibility bestowed upon her by the Brexiter Timothy and their joint hard line. 

The prime opportunity to gain hegemony over a directionless Brexit discourse came during the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016, May’s first as Prime Minister. At the convention in Birmingham, she proclaimed in a special address – written jointly with Timothy – that Britain would “no longer [be] part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts.” In saying so, May was certain that she had succeeded in forging a winning strategy that honoured the referendum result and the sentiments behind it.  

And yet this very pledge would undo the PM’s Brexit strategy before it took off. For May and Timothy by no means intended to sever the UK completely from its biggest trading partner. They believed British business ought to be able to trade as freely with the EU as before. That their rejection of free movement and ECJ jurisdiction made this impossible was not evident to them. To them, Brexit could be achieved without compromise. May said so in her speech: “I know some people ask about the ‘trade-off’ between controlling immigration and trading with Europe. But that is the wrong way of looking at things.” To top all this, May and Timothy made a second strategic mistake by casting their plan as the only authoritative one: to them, there was no “hard” or “soft” Brexit – just Brexit. There was no room for a Plan B. As the rest of the Cabinet, both the Prime Minister and her aide had simply not fully grasped the magnitude and complexity of the task ahead of them – woefully misjudging both Britain’s political leverage vis-à-vis the EU and what was practically possible. 

The ramifications of their miscalculation only dawned on May much later. As round after round of negotiations confirmed that the EU would not sacrifice the integrity of the Four Freedoms. As her red line on ECJ jurisdiction came close to scuppering cooperation arrangements the UK wanted to maintain. As the Irish border question – an issue the UK Government had been totally oblivious of in October 2016 – made clear that the UK needed a closely aligned customs regime to avoid a hard border. However, by then, the damage was done. To salvage the unsalvageable, the Prime Minister and her new adviser Olly Robbins concocted the highly complex Chequers plan in the hope of averting disaster whilst avoiding charges that May had broken her word. 

By that time, Nick Timothy was no longer in Downing Street. As one of the main architects of the woeful 2017 General Election campaign, he became a persona non grata in the Conservative Party. His dismissal was the precondition for May staying on as Prime Minister. Unlike her, Timothy has not seen the error of his ways: in regular columns for right-of-centre publications, he insists that the Brexit strategy he co-authored with May remains the only viable path ahead. 

There are many reasons for the present impasse in the Brexit negotiations. Yet the most fatal strategic mistake was made in London shortly after the 2016 referendum. A mistake insufficiently discussed because its reverberations are still insufficiently understood even within the UK: that Theresa May and Nick Timothy decided what Brexit meant before knowing what it could mean. 

18 December 2018
This text was published in Bullseye issue 74