The examples that show May is not “getting on with the job” on Brexit

30th April 2017

The UK prime minister Theresa May often uses the phrase “getting on with the job” in respect of her government’s approach to Brexit.

This in turn is part of her supposed “strong and stable” leadership.

Rhetoric, of course, is one thing.

But there are at least three ways in which May’s government has not got on with the job with Brexit and wasted precious time instead.


First, back in July, whilst the EU cracked on with practically preparing for Brexit, May lost crucial time starting two (competing) Whitehall departments from scratch.

(My three-part detailed and source-based series at the FT on the EU’s preparations for Brexit  is here, here, and here.)

The two new departments (of International Trade and for Exiting the European Union) are still not (in April 2017) up to speed.

There are reports of turf wars with each other, and both with the Foreign Office, Treasury and UKREP (the UK in Brussels).

There is even still uncertainty as to who is UK’s counterpart to Michel Barnier. (Is it May, Davis, Robbins, UKREP?)

Back in July, the then Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin gave evidence to a commons select committee on early preparations for Brexit.

How we laughed at his talk of fine-grained, multi-dimensional options papers – but at least something was being done straight away.

The former prime minister had refused to allow the civil service to properly prepare for one outcome – “leave” – of a binary referendum.  The UK was always going to be far behind, at least to begin with.

It was critical that the UK civil service caught up as rapidly as possible.

But instead of letting the Cabinet Office and Foreign Office (and UKREP) get on with the job, May wasted limited time and resources – at this crucial early stage – with disruptive re-organisational tinkering in Whitehall.

By Autumn, the EU were already lapping the UK before the UK was properly getting started.


Second, there was the Miller litigation.

Instead of putting an Article 50 bill through parliament to put the government’s ability to make the notification on a statutory basis, May insisted that the government fight the case both in the High Court and the Supreme Court.

In the end, the government lost twice and had to put through a bill anyway.

This litigation diverted limited time and expertise in the government (especially in the government legal service) in the early few months.

There was never any good reason to fight this case. The referendum legislation did not make the result binding at law (even if it were binding politically).

The government could have just got on with the job instead of wasting time in the courts.

And, it must be remembered, May was lucky in the Supreme Court – it was possible that the judgment could have meant that there would have to be formal involvement of the devolved powers, thus creating more delay.

As there was always was a majority in parliament for the appropriate legislation, the court case was a needless, expensive and high-risk diversion.


The third self-inflicted delay is the most damaging.

On 29 March 2017, May made the Article 50 notification, triggering a two year period for negotiating an exit agreement.

Although this two year period can be extended by unanimity, there is no reason to believe this will happen.  Barnier is on record as saying that he wants to get the deal done in two years.

Every month – indeed every week – is now important.

But May has called a needless general election.

This means that negotiations cannot formally start until June 2017.  May has therefore lost the UK significant time at the start of the negotiation process.

And what makes this particularly unfortunate is that the EU is already well-prepared.

In the UK. however, minister will be electioneering, not preparing; and the “purdah” limits what civil servants can and cannot do.

There could be no worse time for a general election, and its attendant effects on policy and decision making.


Again and again, under the cloak of “getting on with job” rhetoric, May has diverted and frittered.

May handicapped the civil service before it could get going; the government legal department before it could get going; and now the Brexit exit agreement talks before they could get going.

All for the reason, it seems, of domestic political consumption.

And this is in addition to other obvious missteps: appointing Johnson and Fox, losing Rogers at UKREP, not being able to carry the Scottish Government (in contrast to Donald Tusk keeping the EU27 united, May can’t even keep the home nations on board), and so on.

May boasted of not showing cards and giving “no running commentary” and then she loudly (and needlessly) shows her cards ruling out membership of the single market and the customs union, and rejecting absolutely any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

To contrive bargaining tokens, her government is now reduced to threatening security and intelligence co-operation, and even to try to block the departure of EU agencies from the UK.

Whatever all this can be called, it is not “strong and stable leadership and “getting on with the job” – even if people who should know better nod-along with such rhetoric.

Getting on with the job is what, in fact, the EU are doing.

By keeping EU27 together in respect of consistent and strict Brexit objectives is what Tusk, Barnier and others are (so far) doing, and this can be fairly called strong and stable leadership.

The UK are instead wasting time, when there is no time to waste.


I have no objection to Brexit in principle: this post is not an exercise in remoaning.  The UK can be successful outside the EU.

But if a post-Brexit UK is going to be a success, the current approach of May and her government does not bode well.


My book “Brexit What Everyone Needs to Know” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

This post is an elaboration of this thread on Twitter.

24 thoughts on “The examples that show May is not “getting on with the job” on Brexit”

  1. I have the increasing impression that Mayssolini and cabal could care less if they get a deal with the EU. In their eyes industry will replace workers with robots, so why compete. The real money, for the super rich is in becoming a tax haven. A golden opportunity to escape the EU’s soon-to-be stricter anti money laundering regulations came their way via the Brexshit referendum outcome. They’ll feed the proles, just about, with benefits and food vouchers, educate them badly (no dictatorship wants educated proles), let many die through insufficient healthcare (cheaper), and cream off the wealth for themselves.

    1. I’m afraid that is just what she is going to do. It will probably misfire for her incompetence and – I believe – vanity will sink any workable solution.

  2. weak and wobbly?
    unconvincing and unbalanced?
    in mimicking Hair Strumpf’s fakirs, she’s close to unhinged judging by today’s appearance on Andrew Marr
    ho hum

  3. Cate’s comment sounds like hyperbole but I fear it is perilously close to the truth. The Tory party and therefore the country has been hijacked by a cabal of the far right and Britain is starting to look as if it’s undergoing a very British coup. With the hopeless Corbyn pulling votes away from Labour I foresee a very grim 20 years coming up for the UK, with unfettered Tory rule. At the end of it, there will be no health service, no welfare state and all the good that progressive governments have done since the Second World War will be in ruins.

  4. The election was necessary.

    The Miller litigation showed there would be endless court cases, Lords votes, and all sorts of interference, each one giving the EU hope that if they push a hard line then the government would find themselves having to comply due to interference from the courts pushing a vote in the commons, and there being a majority for soft-brexit in the commons. The election will sweep all that judicial interference away and give the May government a clear run at the negotiations.

    1. If judicial decisions are ‘interference’ (a word that Dipper uses three times in as many sentences) shouldn’t we just abolish the judiciary and let the government get on with the job?

      Mike Cohen

  5. Do you really think Dipper that an election will stop an unelected 2nd chamber (the House of Lords) from interfering? Or stop the court cases?

    If so I think you need a crash cpurse on how the constitution works.

    1. The House of Lords, as we now all know, will not block anything that was in the manifesto of the elected government. So after the election the Lords has less scope to block anything Theresa May put in the manifesto. This does mean that she needs to consider the manifesto quite carefully.

      The key about Judicial interference is that if the courts now dictate that the Commons must have a vote then it will be much clearer what the outcome is prior to the vote as the new parliament will have a clear mandate. It is not that judicial interference will stop, just that parliament will be more supportive of May.

      Hence a victory for Theresa May puts her in a better position than was previously the case.

      1. What you call “judicial interference”, I call the rule of law.

        Of course, once a government is returned with a substantial majority, the elected dictatorship can sweep all of that away if it wishes. In the absence of entrenched constitutional rights, and ubiquitous surveillance (ANPR, interception of communications, location tracking via smartphones, etc), it would all be too easy. But it can’t happen here, right?

  6. Oliver Letwin is my MP so straight after 23 June I emailed him on brexit and continued thereafter; OK they might be handy hints from a retired europhile resident in West Dorset but like Mon of Kent I accepted the result of the referendum.

    So my thrust was that HMG should draft out a treaty of X (where X = Westminster, Birmingham, Chequers or wherever), this would set out (albeit in very brief chapter headings our position on future relations) with the EU. Not including terms which would imply having the cake and eating it but a considered, serious response. We would gain the first movers advantage. Mrs May has lost this – the agenda is being set by Brussels and the EU.

  7. A small point of nomenclature: the “Scottish Executive” was formally renamed the “Scottish Government” as a result of the Scotland Act 2012 ss. 12(2)(a).

  8. I’m seeing DAG saying “the UK can be successful outside the EU”. Not knocking that as a personal conviction, but completely unsupported and I’m really not seeing much from DAG or anyone else (except Paul Marshall) which explains how ?, what do we need to be doing to get there ?, and could it really be the UK or is it just going to be England + Wales ?

    1. The UK can be successful within the EU or outside the EU. Neither status is, by itself, determinative. Both can work. That is why, to the bemusement of others, I am ultimately neutral on Brexit.

      1. In just what ways would Britain be successful outside the EU, though? I can only see this happening if Britain is in the Single Market and the Customs Union – I can’t see that being outside these two entities could lead to future prosperity when so much of our trade, and so much of our supply chain are both so closely connected to Europe. It would take decades to turn our focus around from the EU, which makes sense as our biggest market anyway, due to roughly comparable living standards and geographical proximity. Of course we are free to trade with the rest of the world but we haven’t been doing a brilliant job of that so far.

      2. Thanks for the reply, and I see and agree your point that status is not by itself determinative. In practice, though, an awful lot of the real world works smoothly, cheaply and competitively when everybody is used to the rules and the many layers of everyday practice from legal structure through finance structure to IT programmes which depend on them. Driving on the right can also work, but it’s not an equally good answer starting from where we are, is it ?

  9. As a Dutch anglophile I am interested in the process of Brexit. In my opinion a divorce should not take to much time. You can divorce quickly or you can make it a dramatic affair. I think a quick divorce leads to less pain and after a while tou are again on speaking terms.
    According to the information that comes to me, Brexit seems an English hobby. So the solution for the Brexit is in my humble opinion, as a foreigner from the other side of the herring pond, very simple. Let England (and maybe Wales) leave the United Kingdom. What remains of the United Kingdom wil,still be the United Kingdom and as such a member of the EU. I never heard of any internal description of the contents of the UK in the treaty with the other European countries. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II keeps her job, although she may have to move to Edinburgh. Prince Charles may be crowned as King of England and brings perhaps Wales with him in the proces. The sons of Diana can as a consequence become kings or princes of Wales and (Northern) Ireland. These functions are fully ceremonial, in fact a head of sate is superfluous.
    There is one typically British problem: Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are semi-autonomous states with their own parliaments and governments. England has neither a parliament nor a government of his own. So who has to decide for the poor English in the United Kingdom. Bruxit gives the English at last their own parliament and government. Maybe the Scottish and the Irish are not too reluctant to give the English their freedom back. Englishman why not consider this option? No longer problems with Supreme or European Courts and all can be arranged very quickly.
    So why not seriously consider this option? Maybe it is too hard for Englishman to loose their once great empire. So Englishman come to a quick decision, so the non-English can use their energy to more promising purposes.

    1. Well, if you’re going to be all pragmatic and, you know – Dutch – about it…. The problem is, England conquered Scotland and Wales long ago, and then Ireland, so those nations are part of what England – and clearly Theresa May – considers as its Empire. England won’t give them up without a fight.

  10. This write-up should be accompanied with recent footage showing May knocking on doors, getting no answer and sticking in leaflets.

    Nothing says getting on with the job more authoritatively than that.

    23 months left.

  11. I agree that each of these steps took up time and resources but in my view the first 2 were necessary.

    Setting up 2 new departments (well, the DExEU department at least) was unavoidable. There needed to be a senior Secretary of State responsible for Brexit, with no other distractions. It wasn’t tenable to have it done by a Minister in the Cabinet Office, which has barely any resources of its own. Setting up a new department was merely front loading work which should save time and effort further down the track when it will be essential to have as many of the experts together at speed.

    And while I agree that it would have been quicker and easier not to have contested the Miller case, that would have been the short-term expedient option. It was in the long term interests of the government to contest it. Let’s face it, before Pannick put together and publicised Miller’s case the consensus of legal opinion was generally that withdrawal could be done under the prerogative. To have conceded the point without argument would have called into question a whole swathe of government action in the international sphere. And having lost in the High Court, the point needed clarifying by the highest court in the land. Ultimately, although the Supreme Court found against the government, its reasoning was confined to the facts of the ECA 1972, thus avoiding the conclusion that the government would have most wanted to avoid – the High Court judgment was much more damaging to the government’s ability to conduct international affairs generally. Despite losing in the Supreme Court, I bet most government lawyers were hugely relieved that they weren’t stuck with the High Court judgment.

  12. «“purdah” limits what civil servants can and cannot do.»

    There is a fascinating detail from the FAS report of the May-Juncker talks as to that, my summary:

    * May said that she wanted to discuss non-exit topics.
    * Juncker asked her which ones, and she could not name any.
    * So Juncker said that he had one: the UK had blocked work on funding the refugee plans, and that was urgent.
    * May said that was because of “purdah”, the convention that an exiting government cannot bind the hands of the next government before an election.
    * Juncker than asked why they were having a meeting at all, as they would be discussing critical exit matters.
    * May could not explain that.

    Full text here, Google Translate makes it fairly comprehensible:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *