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Everything you need to know about Brexit

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

On June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world and voted to “Brexit,” or leave the European Union. More than two years later, with divisions sowing within and between political parties, the country seems no closer to negotiating the terms of its exit.

The players

  • Conservative Party: At the time of Brexit, the Conservative Party held a majority in Parliament. The party lost its majority in a snap election called by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017 and was forced to form a coalition party with the Democratic Unionist Party.
    • David Cameron: Prime Minister from 2010-2016. He called the referendum, campaigned for "Remain," and resigned after losing the vote.
    • Theresa May: The U.K.’s current prime minister. May supported remaining in the EU before winning the leadership election to replace Cameron. She has managed to keep the job, but has failed to win much support for her approach to Brexit.
    • Boris Johnson: One of the most vocal proponents of leaving the EU from within the Conservative Party.
  • Labour Party: The opposition party in Parliament, which overwhelmingly supports remaining in the EU.
    • Jeremy Corbyn: The hard-left leader of the Labour Party. He opposed Brexit (at least officially) but after the vote said the results must be respected. He's been accused of failing to take a firm line on the issue.
  • “Leave”: The pro-Brexit campaign focused on cutting immigration, gaining sovereignty and slashing payments to Brussels.
  • “Remain”: The opposing campaign emphasized economic harm if Brexit went ahead.

Terms to know

  • Hard Brexit: A hard Brexit is the preferred exit strategy of hard-line Brexiteers. It would include a full withdrawal from the EU customs union.
  • Soft Brexit: A soft Brexit, as outlined by Theresa May’s plan, includes keeping closer economic ties to the EU.
  • No deal Brexit: The case in which the U.K. leaves the E.U. with no formal exit agreement, which would be bad for Europe and disastrous for the U.K. There is an overwhelming consensus on both sides of the aisle that a no-deal Brexit cannot be allowed to happen, per Axios’ Felix Salmon.
  • Backstop: A backup solution that would avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland until the EU's future relationship with the U.K. is resolved.

Key events

  • June 23, 2016: The United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union with 51.89% of the votes to leave and 48.11% to remain.
  • June 24, 2016: Prime Minister David Cameron announces he’ll step down.
  • July 13, 2016: Home Secretary Theresa May becomes prime minister after a leadership contest.
  • March 28, 2017: May signs a letter invoking Article 50, formally beginning the U.K.’s exit from the EU.
  • June 9, 2017: In a snap general election called early by May, who thought she could strengthen her majority, the Conservative Party loses its majority in a shocking vote that leaves the U.K. with a hung Parliament. May forms a government with the support of the right-wing Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party.
  • Dec. 8, 2017: The U.K. and EU reach a last-minute “breakthrough” deal on the first phase of Brexit negotiations. The deal ensures there’ll be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, guarantees the rights of EU citizens in the U.K. (and vice versa) and sets the financial terms for the U.K.’s exit.
  • March 2, 2018: Theresa May outlines her economic vision for the U.K.’s departure from the EU. She presents the softest version of a hard Brexit plan that removes the U.K. from the EU’s market and customs union, but still maintains important economic and regulatory links to the EU via a landmark trade deal.
  • March 19, 2018: Negotiators reach a deal on key terms for the Brexit transition period, with the U.K. making notable concessions. This deal introduces the backstop.
  • July 7, 2018: May and her Cabinet agree on a plan at Chequers that would see the U.K. maintain close economic ties with the EU in what would amount to a “soft” Brexit.
  • Nov. 13, 2018: The U.K. and the EU agree on a draft Brexit agreement, which May’s Cabinet agrees to back the next day.
    • May’s Brexit Secretary and Work and Pensions Secretary resign over the agreement.
  • Dec. 4, 2018: May’s government is found in contempt of Parliament for the first time in history after a refusal to publish its full legal analysis on Brexit.
  • Dec. 12, 2018: 48 Conservative MPs submit letters forcing May to face a vote of no confidence from her own party, which she survives.
  • Jan. 15, 2019: May’s Brexit deal is defeated in the House of Commons by a historic 202 to 432 margin, the biggest defeat for a reigning government in more than a century.
  • Jan. 16, 2019: May survives a motion of no-confidence brought by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn,
  • Jan. 29, 2019: Parliament votes to support May’s effort to find “alternative arrangements” with the EU on the Irish backstop. Parliament also votes to express its opposition to “no deal,” but rejected a plan to push the official exit date back.
  • March 12, 2019: After spending weeks scrambling to make last-minute tweaks to her Brexit agreement, May sees her plan defeated once again in Parliament by a margin of 242 to 391.
  • March 13, 2019: Parliament votes to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
  • March 14, 2019: The amendment to hold a second referendum on Brexit was defeated Thursday 85-344, as anticipated. Parliament also passed a motion calling for the Brexit deadline to be pushed back.
  • March 18, 2019: John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, blocks a third vote on May's Brexit plan, stating the Commons could not vote again on the "same proposition or substantially the same proposition" that was rejected the week before.
  • March 20, 2019: Theresa May asked the EU to delay Brexit until June 30, which would need approval from all 27 EU member states.
  • March 21, 2019: The EU gives the U.K. a short Brexit extension to April 12, at which point they expect to see May's deal approved by Parliament. In the unlikely event the deal is approved, the U.K. will exit the EU on or before May 22.
  • March 27, 2019: May tells Conservative MPs she'll step down after "a smooth and orderly" Brexit.
  • March 29, 2019: May's Brexit deal is defeated for a third time in a 344-286 vote.
  • April 1, 2019: The House of Commons rejects all four alternatives to May's Brexit deal for the second time.
  • April 2, 2019: After a marathon cabinet meeting, May says another "short" Brexit extension is necessary and that she's ready to compromise with the Labour Party.
  • April 10, 2019: The EU offers the U.K. a Brexit extension until Oct. 31.
  • May 21, 2019: May announces she'll offer lawmakers a new Brexit deal that — if passed — would also include a vote in Parliament on whether to hold a second referendum.
  • May 22, 2019: Commons leader Andrea Leadsom resigns over Brexit.
  • May 23, 2019: The U.K. government pulls a planned last-ditch vote on May's Brexit deal.
  • May 24, 2019: Theresa May announced that she will resign as prime minister on June 7.

What’s next: The contest for who will take over the Conservatives kicks off — Boris Johnson has already declared his interest — and the winner will be tasked with taking the next steps on Brexit.

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