Brexit means Brexit

May 2021

We have left the EU with a Boris Johnson deal and are just now coming out of the COVID pandemic. Brexit seems to be far behind us and the term ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has been consigned to history. There is still the ‘Brexit debate’ however which is generally a discussion at whether Brexit has been a positive move or not. I think it will be many years before we know the answer to this. I have argued that there may be a Brexit trilogy with a departure from the union by Scotland sometime in the future and a border poll in Ireland on reunification.

See my light-hearted post of the new species of politician that Brexit spawned. Not all of these have survived.

Early 2019

I’m calling time on the slogan ‘Brexit means Brexit’. I don’t think anyone knows what it means nowadays and I haven’t heard it used it serious political discourse for some time. Anyone who does use it usually finds themselves being mocked. Instead I’ll be looking at some of the current words and phrases that are being trotted out on the airwaves as we pass through our ‘flextension’. The political discourse has been going round in circles for many months now with each group of politicians, from left to right, sticking to the same line. It will be interesting to see if these same words and phrases are still around in October when we are due to leave next. The words that usually come up each day are:

  • Brexit – this word is permanently etched into out memories although it is surprising how many people confuse it with Breakfast! (Usually comes in two flavours: hard or soft)
  • Backstop – a fall back position for the Irish border if no deal is agreed between the EU and the United Kingdom.
  • Malthouse agreement – a compromise position favoured by the Tory right. This agreement is long since dead but Tory ERGers like to still throw it into the political discourse at least once a day. Alternative: Brady Amendment.
  • Canada-plus – a hypothetical free-trade agreement that the UK and the EU might negotiate sometime in the future if we every get round to leaving. Expect to hear this used with any number of pluses added to the end.
  • Custom’s Union – a trading agreement that the EU countries have which allows goods to cross European borders tariff-free. Favoured by the Labour party, pay close attention to whether a definite or indefinite article precedes the term.
  • People’s vote – basically a second referendum. Also knows as ratification or confirmatory vote.
  • No deal – the act of leaving the EU without any agreement in place. Also known as crashing out or leaving on WTO terms depending on whether you are a remainer or Brexiteer.
  • Withdrawal Agreement – the first part of the deal that Theresa May has been flogging for several weeks now in the House of Commons which specifies how the UK will leave the EU.
  • Political Declaration – the other half of Theresa May’s deal which outlines aspirations for the long term relationship between the UK and the EU.
  • Frictionless trade – like perpetual motion, something which only exists in the minds of daydreamers.

Here is a bingo card to help you pass the time as you listen to this neverendum.


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‘Brexit means Brexit’ is a slogan which was coined by Theresa May when she took on the role of leader of the Conservative party and subsequently Prime Minister of Great Britain. The sentence is a tautology in that semantically it does not add anything new to the common ground although it could have quite profound consequences for the country. I will be analysing how this sentence is interpreted in the coming weeks and months by Theresa May and her close advisers to see how politically the meaning and identity of a slogan such as this develops over time. The most recent interpretations are placed on top.

18th July 2018

Prime Minister Theresa May was asked at Prime Minister’s questions in the House of Commons today by one of her own party members:

  • Question: Can the Prime Minister inform the house, at what point it was decided that Brexit means remain? ((groans))
  • PM: Can I .. can I say to my honourable friend. At absolutely no point. Because Brexit continues to mean Brexit ((cheers))

3rd July 2018

The phrase had not been used by the Prime Minister for some time until she used it yesterday in the House of Commons to make light of the situation.

  • “… there’s been much sort of jocularity about the term ‘Brexit means Brexit’ but it does mean Brexit ((laughter))” Prime Minister 

20th November 2017

Michel Barnier, the chief EU Brexit negotiator, coined Theresa May’s phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit’ to say that it must happen everywhere, in all industries, not just selected ones. He was referring to passporting rights in the banking industry.

  • “Brexit means Brexit everywhere” – Michel Barnier to Theresa May, Brussels (The Independent)

28th June 2017

  • “Brexit actually, to coin a phrase, does mean Brexit” – David Jones, Conservative MP (BBC Newsnight)

22nd December 2016

It has been a busy year for the newly coined phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit’. First used in July 2016 after the Brexit vote on the steps of Downing Street by Theresa May as she took up the British premiership, the phrase has served May well since then. It is little used these days however since it tends to be mocked in the media and the opposition.

David Davis said there were still “quite a few decisions to be made” with regard to the government plan (The Guardian)

6th December 2016

Theresa May has not used the soundbite ‘Brexit means Brexit’ very much recently. However she has coined another phrase: ‘a red, white and blue Brexit’ while speaking overseas. The Independent

26th October 2016

During PMQs, the PM was challenged by Jeremy Corbyn to expand on the meaning of ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Theresa May said she took it to mean that the government is listening to the people; that the slogan means Britain will leave the EU and that no one should be able to thwart that ambition. In other words, ‘Brexit’ can only mean one thing (leave the EU) and cannot mean something else short of this.

This suggests a pragmatic interpretation as shown below:

‘Brexit means Brexit’SemanticPragmatic force
Theresa Maytautologylisten to the people, don’t try and frustrate the popular mandate

See the blog on the exchange for more details.

3rd October 2016

We have learnt more about Brexit in the past few days than we have in the last few months since the referendum. Two models of Brexit have emerged:

  • Soft Brexit: in which Britain leaves the EU as a political body but retains membership of the European single market and accepts some form of free movement of people across its borders.
  • Hard Brexit: in which Britain leaves the EU altogether (and the single market) and trades with European countries on WTO terms. Britain would have complete control of its borders.

Theresa May however has dismissed these two tems. She has indicated that Article 50 will be triggered some time next year and at least before the end of March 2017. She has also announced a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ which will mean that all current EU legislation which applies to the UK will be consolidated into UK law at the point of departure from the EU. Assuming Britain leaves around March 2019 this will mean no change in the law at that point. Governments of course will be free to amend the law subsequently through normal parliamentary procedures. She also suggested that we will be outside the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice which implies Britain will leave the European single market altogether. In other words, a hard Brexit.

7th September 2016 – David Davis

After the summer recess, politicians returned to Westminster to try and make sense of the saying: “Brexit means Brexit”. David Davis, the Conservative Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (an odd title methinks) made the first major speech in the House of Commons for the new government to try and shed some light on this.

“Naturally, people want to know what Brexit will mean. Simply, it means leaving the European Union” (David Davis, Hansard, 5/9/2016)

Giving more detail, he said:

“so we will decide on our borders, our laws and the taxpayer’s money. It means getting the best deal for Britain: one that is unique to Britain and not an off-the-shelf solution. This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe, but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade in goods and services.”

He talked about new opportunities:

Brexit is not about making the best of a bad job; it is about seizing a huge and exciting opportunity that will flow from a new place for Britain in the world. There will be new freedoms, new opportunities and new horizons for our country.

The future relationship with Europe was specified:

“I want to be clear to our European friends and allies that we do not see Brexit as ending our relationship with Europe … we will work hard to help to establish a future relationship between the EU and the UK that is dynamic, constructive and healthy. We want a steadfast and successful European Union after we depart.”

He outlined four principles of Brexit:

  • a national concensus
  • national interests first
  • minimise uncertainty
  • return sovereignty to Parliament

15th August 2016

The delay in triggering article 50 could be until Autumn 2017 according to government sources. This is due to a lack of infrastructure, especially negotiators who have the expertise to carry out the complex negotiations with the EU.

“They say they don’t even know the right questions to ask when they finally begin bargaining with Europe,” the source said. (The Indepedent)

Downing Street has declined to say when article 50 will be triggered. (BBC)

Meanwhile, the process of triggering article 50 is being considered by the UK supreme court. It will decide soon whether the article must be triggered by a vote in parliament or whether the Prime Minister alone can trigger it.

27th July 2016

The British government could only ensure the protection of European citizens living in the UK if British citizens were afforded the same rights in other EU states, Theresa May has said in the presence of the Italian prime minister. (The Guardian)

Custom’s Union: On Wednesday, Liam Fox, the international trade secretary said:

He added that London would probably seek to enter a free-trade agreement with the EU, rather than a closer “customs union” that could restrict its ability to negotiate lower tariffs with other trading partners. (The Guardian)

However Downing Street later denied that any such decision has been made:

Downing Street has slapped down Liam Fox… for suggesting that the UK should leave the EU’s customs union… Number 10 is adamant that no such decision has been taken. (The Independent)

Sunday 24th July 2016

Patrick McLoughlin (PM) on the Andrew Marr (AM) show:

PM: well Brexit means that we're coming out of the European Union
    er we want to see our own borders under our control
    and we we obviously want to see the best we can for British investment
AM: a lot of the 17 million people who voted for Brexit 
    assumed it would mean an end
    to mass migration from Europe (.) will it
PM: well I think you can't say that the 17 million people who voted
    I think there were several reasons why people voted 
    to er leave the European Union 
    er so I don't think you can say it is one particular area
    but it does mean that we have to have control of our borders yes
AM: so there wil be- you are going to bring er immigration
    from the EU down considerably absolutely definitely
    and in short order
PM: yes (.) well you say short order

20th July 2016

Theresa May outlines in a little more details some of the principles of Brexit means Brexit. It seems to include (1) controls of free movement (2) best deal for trade. Nothing too controversial here.

TM: and can I assure him
    that as we (.) look at er the result of the referendum
    I’m very clear brexit does mean brexit
    as he says (.) we will make a success of it
    er what we need to do (.) in negotiating the er deal
    is to ensure that we listen to what people have said
    about the need for controls on free movement
    but we also negotiate (.)
    the right deal and the best deal
    of er trade in goods and services
    for the British people

External link to clip

Meeting with Angela Merkel, Theresa May said:

“It’s very clear to me that one of the messages that the British gave in their vote that the UK should leave the European Union is they wanted control brought into movement of people from the  European Union … and so that of course will be one of the issues we will be looking at and we as a government will deliver on for people,” (Quote from The Guardian)

19th July 2016

According to the Guardian:

Theresa May does not intend to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty initiating the UK’s departure from the European Union before the end of 2016, the high court has been told.

17th July 2016

Theresa May visits Wales and says ‘she wants the Welsh Government to be “involved and engaged” in Brexit talks.’ (BBC)

16th July 2016

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister for Scotland says Scotland is in a strong position to block Brexit following her meeting with Theresa May and subsequent comments. (The Independent)

15th July 2016

Theresa May meets with Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister. May assures Sturgeon ‘that she will not trigger article 50 until a “UK-wide approach” has been agreed for negotiations to leave the European Union’. May says:

“I won’t be triggering article 50 until I think that we have a UK approach and objectives for negotiations – I think it is important that we establish that before we trigger article 50.” (The Guardian)

This suggests the terms of Brexit have not been fully established in May’s mind and could delay Brexit indefinitely if Scotland puts up barriers.

14th July 2016

Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, on BBC radio:

... a new phase in the story of the British economy 
with the decision to leave the European Union

13th July 2016

Theresa May again uses the slogan ‘Brexit means Brexit’ in her speech outside No. 10 just minutes after the Queen invited her to form a new government. No extra information on what it means is given.

13th July 2016

Channel 4 news suggests the sentence could mean ‘some kind of revolt against the elite’.

11th July 2016

Theresa May has just won the Conservative party leadership contest and in her accession speech uses the slogan Brexit means Brexit (although she does not expand on what this means). May campaigned to remain in the EU during the referendum and many Brexiters are suspicious that the slogan could be a vacuous statement. In a subsequent interview, she does qualify the statement with ‘we have to leave the EU’.

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