United Kingdom exit from the European Union

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See also: United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016

The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, commonly known as Brexit, refers to official plans and progress for the country to leave the international political and trading union comprising 28 member states across Europe. On 23rd June 2016, voters in a UK-wide referendum opted to leave the EU,[1] triggering proposals to disentangle the UK's laws and international agreements from the wider bloc. The vote led the then-UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, to notify the nation of his intention to step down following an interim period prior to the election of a new leader of his Conservative Party, who would also replace him as premier.[2] His successor, Theresa May, formally initiated the process to leave the EU by giving the required 2 years' notice on 29th March 2017.

The initial response to the referendum result on 24th June comprised a significant downturn in global stock markets,[3] a signal from the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, that her Scottish National Party might well seek a second referendum on the nation leaving the UK, and various comments from national and international organisations on stabilising the markets and respecting the referendum result in an orderly way.

The weekend of 25th-26th June saw further political upheaval. On Saturday, the UK member of the European Commission, Lord Hill, resigned his seat.[4] The Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, was sacked at midnight by the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, for questioning his leadership of the Labour Party's 'remain' campaign after it emerged that many Labour-supporting areas had strongly-backed Brexit. During Sunday, a series of senior Opposition figures resigned amid calls for Corbyn to step down. Meanwhile, the Scottish First Minister suggested that the Scottish Parliament might try to block UK withdrawal,[5] and a petition on the UK government website for a second referendum on EU membership reached over three million signatories. (This petition had originally been started by a 'leave' supporter on the assumption of a 'remain' verdict.)[6] The Liberal Democrats announced a new policy of re-entering the EU.[7] In business news, the banking group HSBC indicated that some staff would be moved from London to Paris if the UK left the EU's single market.[8]

The week beginning 27th June opened with further falls on global stock markets, but speeches by the UK finance minister, George Osborne, and statements by the Prime Minister to the House of Commons sought to calm fears and by the end of the week, stocks had regained most of their lost ground. Resignations continued from the Labour Opposition team, with the majority of senior figures departing, and a confidence vote on Jeremy Corbyn's leadership was called for 28th June. This vote went against Corbyn by 172 votes to 40, but he remained leader. In the Conservative leadership contest, Boris Johnson surprised observers by withdrawing from the race, citing lack of support following the sudden entry of his fellow 'leave' campaigner Michael Gove into the race. Four other candidates also put themselves forward, with Home Secretary Theresa May rapidly becoming the front-runner. Meanwhile, the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, held talks with European leaders on securing Scotland's relationship with the EU, but no firm plans were agreed.

By 7th July, the final two candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party were decided after two ballots of MPs: Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom, the Energy Minister. Leadsom came in for some criticism after appearing to suggest that motherhood made her a better candidate for the office of Prime Minister than May, who did not have children. On 11th July, Leadsom withdrew from the contest, leaving May the only remaining candidate. She was duly elected leader of the party and became Prime Minister on 13th July.[9] Meanwhile, Angela Eagle announced that she would challenge Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party. She later withdrew in favour of Owen Smith. Corbyn was eventually reelected with a slightly larger majority.

On 13th July, Theresa May replaced David Cameron as Prime Minister. May created a new government body responsible for Brexit: the Department for Exiting the European Union, and appointed David Davis as its head. A separate Department for International Trade was also created, led by Liam Fox; this is expected to pursue trade deals with nations worldwide. These departments, along with two others - the Foreign Office and International Development - all saw 'leave' campaigners appointed to run them. The appointment of the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, surprised some as he was regarded as somewhat undiplomatic[10] and had never held a Cabinet post; likewise, the promotion of Priti Patel to International Development was unexpected as she had previously called for its abolition.[11]

Mrs May negotiated a withdrawal agreement, but the House of Commons rejected it 3 times, resulting in 2 postponements. The House also rejected every other definite proposal put before it, and not just by the Government. After several weeks of negotiations with the Opposition failed to find a way forward, she resigned. Her successor, Boris Johnson, adopted a more combative attitude to Parliament, which ordered him to request a 3rd postponement. Once this was agreed, Parliament agreed to his request for a general election, which he won comfortably. The new Parliament passed the legislation to implement his revised withdrawal agreement, and the UK left the EU on 31st January 2020.