Confused? A guide to understanding Brexit

WATCH: Three years after voting to leave the European Union and trigger Brexit, Britain has been left beaten and battered by ongoing negotiations with the EU and debating among U.K. parliamentarians on how to make a clean break, which begs the question: how did Britain get here?

It’s been a busy week for Brexit.

From the prospect of the United Kingdom’s third election in four years to the news that not even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own brother can stomach his Brexit agenda, every day has spawned fresh wrinkles in the British quest for independence.

Given three years of declarations of “Brexit drama reaches new heights,” you’d be forgiven for forgetting how the U.K.’s European divorce even got started. So here ahead of another week promising fresh Brexit drama is a catch up on how we got here.

WATCH: Is blood thicker than Brexit?

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Is blood thicker than Brexit?


In January 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron said if re-elected, his Conservative Party would put the question of whether to leave the European Union to the general public.

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Disillusionment with EU operations and discontent over Britain’s position within it had been brewing for some time and while Cameron would prefer “with all my heart and soul” to stay, he said in his speech that ignoring the discontent  — which has a long history dating back to the Second World War — wouldn’t solve the issue.

“Some people say that to point this out is irresponsible, creates uncertainty for business and puts a question mark over Britain’s place in the European Union,” Cameron said in his speech. “But the question mark is already there. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.”

Indeed, Cameron’s party had a lot to lose from the UK Independence Party, which was growing in strength and whose focus was on tightening immigration and leaving the EU.

The crux of the issues:


Cameron was re-elected and called a vote. On June 23, 2016, 52 per cent of voters — overwhelmingly led by voters over the age of 50 — voted for Brexit. Most voters in England and Wales supported Brexit, while those in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay. Almost immediately, some pro-Brexit voters started to express regrets, which led to a memorable monologue from British late-night host John Oliver, who yelled: “There are no f—ing do-overs.”

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The vote caused the British pound to plummet to its lowest levels in decades and saw Cameron resign his position as prime minister.

“The British people have made the very clear decision to take a different path and, as such, I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction,” he said in a televised address. “I do not think it would be right for me to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.”

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was asked to step down and 30 of his MPs quit, saying he ran too tepid a campaign to try to convince people to stay.

WATCH: The Brexit campaign

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The leader of the U.K. Independence Party Nigel Farage was gleeful: “The dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom… Let June 23 go down in our history as our independence day!”

On July 13, 2016, Theresa May was announced as the new prime minister, becoming only the second woman to hold the position after a bitter and divisive campaign, one left with the unenviable task of navigating Brexit, a term the Oxford English dictionary formally added to its list a few months later.

WATCH: ‘I accepted’ — Theresa May is Britain’s new prime minister

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‘I accepted’: Theresa May is Britain’s new prime minister


On Jan. 17, 2017, after months of speculation about how Prime Minister Theresa May would handle negotiations, she formally unveiled her Brexit plan.

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May pitched a “hard Brexit,” which would completely separate the U.K. from the EU. She outlined 12 priorities, which included limits on immigration, removing the U.K. from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and ending its membership of the customs union responsible for setting external tariffs for imported goods.

May set the stage for the negotiations to come, saying that Britain would leave even if no trade deal was reached. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she said.

During May’s speech, the pound went up 2.5 per cent against the dollar — its biggest increase since December 2008.


On March 16, 2017, the bill authorizing Britain to start Brexit in earnest received royal assent. On March 29, Britain hand-delivered a letter to the European Council president formally triggering a two-year countdown to Brexit — the official divorce filing as some described it.

Negotiations got off to a rocky start.

Almost immediately during a summit in Brussels in April, European leaders were quick to criticize May and her government for insinuating both that negotiations might be quick and that Britain would be able to keep easy access to EU markets.


In April 2017, May called a snap election, arguing it would help the government better negotiate a better Brexit deal. She told the BBC her political opponents were intent on “frustrating the Brexit process” — even after Parliament OK’d formally triggering Brexit.

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However, the June 8 election didn’t go May’s way. Instead of strengthening her majority government she ended up with a hung government just before Brexit negotiations were set to officially start. Within days, May’s two top aides quit. May herself rejected calls for her resignation.

Even after Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party agreed to prop up May’s minority government, the criticism didn’t stop.

In May 2018, the Scottish parliament passed a motion refusing to consent to the EU Withdrawal Bill, a key bill the U.K. meant to use to convert all EU law into British statute after Brexit. And while legally speaking they couldn’t block the legislation, for the British government to push it through without Scottish consent could instigate a constitutional crisis.

In July 2018, divisions among May’s team continued to grow as she pushed for a Brexit plan that would see the U.K. keep close trade and regulatory ties with the EU. The Brexit secretary resigned saying he was not prepared to be “a reluctant conscript” to May’s plans. And then foreign secretary Boris Johnson — who had led the main Brexit campaign in 2016 — also resigned, to the cheers of May’s critics.

In his exit speech, Johnson said that although May’s January 2017 speech had outlined a vision for a “strong independent, self-governing Britain,” that had never materialized during negotiations.

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By September 2018, Johnson escalated his criticism, comparing May’s Brexit plan to putting the country’s constitution in a “suicide vest” and leaving the EU in charge of the detonator. Her plan was a “humiliation,” he said, and amounted to “agreeing to take EU rules, with no say on those rules.”

The negotiations were officially so “mired in confusion and deadlock,” said London mayor Sadiq Khan that same month, that a second referendum should be held. May pushed ahead.


In November 2018, after months of difficult negotiation, May’s government reached a draft Brexit deal with the EU. The lengthy document seemed doomed from the get-go, although you can still read a breakdown of its key points here. Within 12 hours of announcing the draft, Brexit minister Dominic Raab and work and pensions minister Esther McVey both quit. They said they couldn’t support the deal.

Within weeks, the Northern Irish Party keeping May’s minority government afloat said it would vote against the draft because, as its deputy leader said, it would leave the country in a “pitiful and pathetic place.”

In January 2019, with Parliament set to vote on May’s deal, her party’s whip quit, saying he could no longer reconcile his duties to help the government implement the Brexit draft deal with his personal objections.

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“I have concluded that I cannot, in all conscience, support the Government’s position when it is clear this deal would be detrimental to our nation’s interests,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

British parliament officially rejected May’s Brexit deal on Jan. 15, 2019, with a little over two months left on the clock. The Associated Press characterized the overwhelming rejection as “the biggest defeat for a government in the House of Commons in more than a century.”


On March 12, May sent her Brexit deal back for a second vote. While she lost in January by 230 votes, this time she lost by 149 votes. At the end of the month, around the time the U.K. was originally expected to have formally separated from the EU, May tweaked her Brexit deal and sent it back to Parliament for a third vote.

Brexit supporters who felt betrayed by lawmakers marked the vote with protests, some in the crowd warning: “It is absolutely disgusting what is happening. Be warned — this is just the beginning of a mass uprising if we get betrayed by the politicians.” Again, Parliament voted no.

That left Britain in limbo: leave the EU with no deal in April or delay — if the EU agreed to grant one — again. May then made escalating attempts to try to get Brexit back on track, after the EU agreed to extend it withdrawal deadline to Oct. 31.

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May resigned on June 7th.

WATCH: May, Corbyn debate Brexit future on her last day as PM

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May, Corbyn debate Brexit future on her last day as PM

On July 24th, Boris Johson — who led the 2016 Brexit campaign and later quit as foreign secretary in 2018 — took office as prime minister, immediately moving to shut down party members opposing or attempting to block his plans.

After announcing on Aug. 28 he planned to prorogue Parliament, British opposition banded together to stop him since a temporary government shut down would limit their abilities to prevent a no-deal Brexit, which, according to reports, would have stark consequences: from rising food prices to drug shortages to impacts on housing costs.

But while Johnston defended the decision, saying “the country wants this done and they want the referendum respected,” his authority seems to be waning.

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WATCH: Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest through U.K. parliament gates, met with pro-Brexiters

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Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest through U.K. parliament gates, met with pro-Brexiters

On Tuesday, Sept. 3, Johnson kicked 21 members out of his own party for failing to support his Brexit plans and several other party members defected, killing Johnson’s working majority. The opposition then took control of Parliament, prompting Johnson to call for another election — what would be the U.K.’s third in four years.

On Sept. 4, the British opposition shut down his request for an election. The opposition wants assurances that Johnson will ask the EU for another extension before an election and voted to force him to request a three-month delay. Johnson has said he’d “rather be dead in a ditch.” Even if the U.K. asks for a delay, the EU will still need to grant it.

On Sept. 8, Johnson’s work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd joined the list of politicians quitting in protest of Johnson’s Brexit strategy. However, two of his remaining ministers said that wouldn’t alter Johnson’s plans.

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On Sept. 9, Johnson continued to insist that he could reach a deal ahead of the Oct. 31 deadline while continuing his plans to prorogue Parliament until two weeks before then. On the same day, Johnson’s opponents successfully passed a bill aiming to keep him from removing the U.K. from the EU without a deal.

While Johnson was able to prorogue parliament after the session lasted well into the morning of Sept. 10, his government has been ordered to release its private communications about Brexit plans and his attempts to call a snap election were defeated.

Wait, There’s More: Boris Johnson has lost control, but Brexit is still in play

Johnson maintains he will not ask for an extension but his legal options are dwindling. The suspension is “not a standard or normal prorogation,” said Commons Speaker John Bercow, who recently announced he will step down after a decade on the job

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Parliament is scheduled to resume on Oct. 14.

— with files from Reuters and the Associated Press

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