Of course, Britain is now in unknown, volatile territory. Brexit strains, combined with a working majority of just 16, could force her to seek a personal mandate from voters at an early election, or even bring down her premiership. At times the year will feel like a long series of arm-wrestles between the legislature and the executive. But Mrs May is cautious and, with neither Labour nor the UK Independence Party in a good state, will probably resist the temptation to cash in on her soaring poll leads. Indeed, these should help her keep a lid on impatience and dissent in her party.
When she triggers Article 50, Mrs May will begin a two-year countdown to Brexit. The first couple of months will bring bureaucratic throat-clearing (the European Commission will lead the talks, with the European Council breathing down its neck). In the run-up to France’s presidential election, in April and May, mainstream French politicians will talk tough about Brexit to counter Marine Le Pen, the right-wing populist who wants her country to hold its own referendum on leaving the EU. Shortly afterwards German politics will turn inwards ahead of a parliamentary election in September, probably re-engaging in earnest with Brexit only in November, once a new coalition has emerged in Berlin.
To be sure, things will not remain entirely calm after Mrs May hits the red button. Every morsel of detail about her negotiating strategy will be a new battlefield. On the one side will be Brexiteer ministers including David Davis, the Brexit secretary; backbench Tories such as Iain Duncan Smith; and, most noisily, tabloid newspapers like the Daily Mail. These voices will militate aggressively for a rapid and total break from the union.
On the other side will be the real opposition: the pound. As the likelihood of Britain’s departure from the single market grows—a corollary of its uncompromising stance on immigration—the country’s economic prospects will decline. Sterling will struggle to find a floor, inflation will start to hurt, growth will fall below that of the euro zone and investment will slow. Businesses will raise their voices, making common cause with pro-European MPs, the Treasury (in the person of Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer) and a newly thrusting, liberal wing of the Tory party (led by George Osborne, his predecessor).
The tension between these two armies will grow. Some MPs will try, with limited success, to use the Article 50 debate to shape Mrs May’s negotiating position. A summer vote on the “Great Repeal Bill”, formally revoking the legislation that took Britain into the European club in 1973 (but also incorporating all current EU legislation into British law), will be another showdown.
But the real conflict will begin at the end of year. Once properly under way in the autumn, the negotiation will divide into two halves. The first, simpler one will concern the basic divorce settlement: the process by which Britain and the rest of the EU divide up the union’s institutions and pots of cash; and by which cross-border procedures and migrant populations are regularised. The second, trickier one will concern the new relationship between the two sides (which may end up resembling Canada’s free-trade deal with the EU). But this stands little chance of being sealed by early 2019, so by the end of 2017 the British will feel increasing pressure to do an interim deal covering the period between Brexit and that new, permanent settlement.
Fog in the Channel
Around this point negotiations may well hit deadlock, as Britain demands a temporary arrangement keeping it in the single market without full free movement, and its European partners cleave to their insistence that there can be no EU deal better than full membership. In Britain the role of the European Parliament and its veto over the country’s final settlement will become better understood. Brexit proper—the crashing flourish with which Britain quits the club—will play out in 2018 and 2019. But by the end of 2017, with talks struggling to advance and the clock ticking down, it will dawn on Britons that their hand is not as strong as many had once assumed.
*Will a date be set for an early general election in Britain before 1st July 2017? Test your forecasting skills at the Good Judgment Project/The World in 2016 challenge, at gjopen.com/economist
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