I don't follow UK politics much, but I did get interested during the Brexit referendum two years ago. Back then, the main names I recall are David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and Nigel Farage, and maybe also Corbyn I think. At least, those were the names you constantly read about in the papers. I don't recall ever hearing the name "Theresa May".

I also know that Boris Johnson and Farage were the ones that were mainly pro Brexit and Corbyn and Cameron were against it.

Then the Brexiters won the referendum, and now that the negotiations are at the latter stage, I am again getting interested in UK politics. However, what I don't understand is, where did May come from? Why is she leading Brexit negotiations all of a sudden, when she played no significant role of promoting Brexit during the referendum? And I'm not seeing Farage or Johnson anywhere? What happened?

In short: why aren't the main endorsers of Brexit, the ones we kept hearing about during the campaign in 2016, not the ones leading the negotiations?

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    Short answer IMHO: (non-)sincerity.
    – Drux
    Nov 27, 2018 at 5:44
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    I don't think there's enough internet left to answer this one.
    – Strawberry
    Nov 27, 2018 at 9:59
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    Brexiteer politicians made promises they knew they could never keep to get into power. When the time came to deliver on those promises, they resigned.
    – Ian Kemp
    Nov 27, 2018 at 10:21
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    @Strawberry "not enough internet"? I thought the answer would be one-liner: "Because she is the prime minister." Nov 27, 2018 at 12:15
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    "I had never heard the name Theresa May" she was the UKs Home Secretary in the David Cameron Government, a role concerned with internal matters such as Policing, National Security, Immigration and Citizenship within England and Wales. Although not a prominent role internationally a very important one within the country itself.
    – Sarriesfan
    Nov 27, 2018 at 23:05

4 Answers 4


In short all Leave candidates who put themselves forward for the PM job lost in a run-off to Andrea Leadsom (a Leave supporter) who then backed out. Major Leave supporters were given top level ministerial jobs, including arguably the most important one of Brexit Secretary - the Chief Negotiator position - and then resigned when they were unable to deliver anything that they personally approved of as a consequence of the negotiations.

In more depth...

Your best starting place is probably here; Conservative 2016 Leadership Campaign. It's difficult to assign motives if the individuals involved haven't made specific statements, and there's obviously a level of trust you'd have to place in those that have made them.

The key points that left Theresa May in charge are detailed in the Wikipedia link above, but can be best summarised as;

  • David Cameron calls a Referendum promising to stay on as PM no matter what the result.
  • Leave campaign fronted by Boris Johnson wins the Referendum
  • David Cameron resigns. Opening a Conservative Leadership election.
  • Theresa May is seen as David Cameron's choice for successor, Boris Johnson as leader of Leave is seen as the strongest Leave supporting Candidate.
  • Michael Gove declares himself a PM candidate, saying Boris is not up to the job.
  • Boris says the lack of Gove's support means he cannot run for PM job.
  • Conservative election rules mean a number of ballots are run until only two candidates are left. Realistically this would always mean one Remain supporter and one Leave supporter were the final candidates.
  • Theresa May (Remain) and Andrea Leadsom (Leave) are final candidates, which would go to Conservative Party member for a vote.
  • Leadsom withdraws from the race, leaving May to take the top slot "unopposed".

Since the referendum a number of high profile Leave campaigners have been involved in the negotiations. Brexiteer David Davis was the lead negotiator as Brexit Secretary for two years before resigning, while Boris Johnson was the Foreign Secretary for the same period. Dominic Raab, also a long time Leave supporter, then took over as Brexit Secretary and lead negotiator until the final Deal was agreed on the 14th November 2018. He then resigned stating his unhappiness with the deal.

As an aside, Nigel Farage was at the time the leader of UKIP, a separate political party with 2 MPs at the time, neither of which was Farage. There is no realistic way he would have been involved with running the country following the referendum. At best, he might have been offered a cabinet position, although I don't know if he could have remained an MEP under those circumstances. Party politics make that unlikely, because UKIP has been seen historically as a party drawing voters away from the Conservative party, making them unlikely to raise its profile in anyway, especially following the success of the Leave cause they had campaigned in favour of for such a long time.

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    This is a good answer, but the last paragraph should be given more prominence. May put prominent Leave campaigners in charge of the Brexit negotiations, presumably so that she couldn't be accused of sabotaging them en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. Unfortunately Davis was unable to negotiate effectively. ft.com/content/9e3aacf0-7b9c-11e8-bc55-50daf11b720d Nov 26, 2018 at 14:47
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    @PaulJohnson I've beefed up the TLDR a bit to try to highlight that. Unfortunately it's a bit easy to lose the closing paragraphs in the Leadership Campaign timeline, but I don't want to make that bullet list a footnote.
    – Jontia
    Nov 26, 2018 at 14:57
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    (+1) Good answer. I would argue that Andrea Leadsom never had enough party support to actually win the race and therefore May was bound to be the new PM. Nevertheless I do wonder what might have happened if the cabinet was either full-remain or full-leave instead of a mixed bag. I don't think any of the options would be sustainable long term but than again neither it was this one. One could argue that the snap general election was about more than just gaining ground over the opposition parties.
    – armatita
    Nov 26, 2018 at 15:20
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    You mention Nigel Farage. It's worth mentioning that he immediately resigned from UKIP leader on winning the referendum Nov 27, 2018 at 9:59
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    @RichardTingle it felt a little like going too far off tangent. The reason he's not doing any negotiating is that he's not a member of the government. Explaining what Farage in particular is up to now felt like a different question.
    – Jontia
    Nov 27, 2018 at 10:13

Other answers have given details of the history, so I will seek to explain the reasoning behind it.

The Tory party has been divided on the EU since before the UK joined. Cameron was attempting to put to rest an issue that had plagued every Tory PM for decades by holding a definitive referendum.

After the referendum result Cameron could not continue as leader, having lost the referendum (he strongly supported remaining). As a remainer he would have faced severe criticism for not really believing in the thing he was supposed to be negotiating, something that later damaged May. He couldn't realistically lead the party into the next election either, due to having already lost a vote.

The question then became who would take over. A number of Brexit supporting candidates came forward for the Tory leadership contest, but all dropped out. It became apparent to them that there was not enough support for their hard Brexit ideas within their own party, meaning that they would have no realistic chance of delivering it.

Essentially they all realized that he Tory party was still just as divided and that the task they were faced with was impossible. May apparently felt that she could deliver some kind of compromise that would be acceptable to enough people to pass it, and pressed ahead.

I'm speculating by she may have thought that weak opposition from the Labour party would help her. She certainly thought it was a good idea to call a general election early, in the hope of gaining a larger majority and thus being able to isolate the hard line Brexitters in the Tory party. In other words she wanted enough moderates and loyalists in Parliament to pass her compromise deal, but her plan failed spectacularly when Labour, and Corbyn in particular, proved to be more formidable than she had reckoned.

So the short answer is that all the strong Brexit supporters realized that actually delivering Brexit would destroy them and make their legacy one of failure, so stepped back to let May take the fall.

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    It seems more like the "short answer" is that the political class in Britain as a whole, Tories included, simply refuse to honor the referendum, as suggested in your third paragraph. Of course I'm not saying they should honor it. Democracy goes too far when the people start trying to run things to suit themselves. Nov 26, 2018 at 18:58
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    Not so much "honour" it, as in they realized that it was too vague and that the promises made were ridiculous fantasies, so whatever anyone did would be a failure and never satisfy any useful percentage of voters. What could anyone possibly do to "honour" it in any meaningful way?
    – user
    Nov 26, 2018 at 21:24
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    You are ignoring the question though. What could anyone do that would "honour" the vote? No option does what any majority of people wanted, and no option is deliverable given the situation. What do you think should actually happen?
    – user
    Nov 26, 2018 at 22:50
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    @EdPlunkett When user talks about what the Leave campaign promised, they are not talking about the Leaving part, but the stuff they promised would happen if the UK left. Here are a list of promises that the Leave campaign made that cannot happen: theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2018/mar/28/… And I found that on the first Google result for "leave promises that were broken." There are a lot more articles in that list.
    – trlkly
    Nov 27, 2018 at 5:35
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    @EdPlunkett problem with simply repealing the laws is that it would make the UK extremely poor, destroy many people's jobs and cause massive problems like a hard border in Ireland and the world's largest lorry park in Kent. No-one voted for that, we were promised milk and honey. That would be a massive betrayal of what people expected and were sold.
    – user
    Nov 27, 2018 at 9:38

This is covered in this section of David Cameron's Wikipedia page, albeit indirectly. It's also discussed on the page for the referendum itself.

Basically, David Cameron was the Prime Minister at the time of the Brexit referendum, and was responsible for scheduling and overseeing it. I believe his party (the Conservative Party) was officially neutral on the vote, but he gave permission for anyone in it to campaign for whichever side they preferred. He, personally, preferred to stay in the EU, and he resigned when the final vote was for "Leave". Thesera May was chosen as the replacement Prime Minister, and thus is now responsible for actually arranging it.

  • One could add, that, even though the government conducts the negotiation, Parliament has to agree on every such treaty like the withdrawal agreement and Parliament could have, at any time, voted for another PM/government, if it didn't like the current one (keyword: leadership contest). In a way Theresa May is just executing the will of the Tory/DUP alliance in Parliament. Nov 27, 2018 at 21:40
  • @Trilarion In general Parliament does NOT have to agree to treaties. Article 50 notification required parliamentary approval because it would nullify a number of Acts of Parliament. The withdrawal agreement requires parliamentary approval because an amendment requiring this was added to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (specifically section 13). Without that section, parliamentary approval would not be required. Nov 28, 2018 at 9:58
  • @MartinBonner It would then not be required because Parliament already gave their approval in the Withdrawal Act 2018, I would say. But probably even then they could have changed their mind in the mean time, I guess. As I understand it, all power comes from the Parliament, directly or indirectly, even if it can choose to delegate it at times. Otherwise it wouldn't be a democracy. I just want to emphasize that Theresa May is not acting on her own but broadly relies on the Parliament and especially the Tory and DUP MPs to back her. Without that backup, she could not have done that negotiation. Nov 28, 2018 at 13:24
  • @Trilarion Your understanding is wrong. As a general rule treaties with foreign states are enacted by the Royal Prerogative. That means they are nominally made by the Queen, but in practise by the Government. The only control Parliament has over treaties is that in theory they can remove the Government by passing a motion of no confidence. Nov 28, 2018 at 13:29
  • @MartinBonner That's already a lot of control, I would say, but less than I thought. Thanks for the correction. Parliament makes the laws and can dispose governments, but the government does negotiate and sign off treaties (nominally the Queen). Still it seems to me that May relies on the backing of the Parliament. Nov 28, 2018 at 13:38

The top answer says:

“the Chief [Brexit] Negotiator.. then resigned when [he was] unable to deliver anything that [he] personally approved of as a consequence of the negotiations.”

What happened was that the Prime Minister had two Brexit strategies running in parallel. One in public, led by the elected representative Brexit Secretary (David Davis), and one quietly behind the scenes led by a civil servant named Olly Robbins.

Brexit can be split into two parts: the Withdrawal Agreement and the Future Relationship.

The Withdrawal Agreement is the legal agreement defining the process by which the UK will leave: for example financial settlements, dates and rules for any period of transition.

The Future Relationship is the legal text used to define the UK/EU relationship after any transition period. ie. for the long-term.

As Brexit Secretary, David Davis was unhappy with elements of the Withdrawal Agreement as it slowly emerged in 2017/early 2018, but his team’s primary focus in early 2018 was the really important text: the Future Relationship.

The Prime Minister then announced that the Draft Future Relationship text would be revealed on 12th July 2018 at her official country house named Chequers.

It immediately became clear to David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, and the people’s representative in this area of policy, that his work was to be ignored and that another document, written by the second team inside the Civil Service, was to be used as the basis for Brexit. Davis then resigned (along with his deputy).

So the Brexit Secretary’s manager revealed that she had gone behind his back for a period of months to develop her own plan to replace his. This was a firing, not a resignation.

The answer to the wider question as to “what happened to all the Brexiters?” is simple: Brexit was a revolt against the political establishment. So there were almost no Brexiters in a position of power in the first place.

There were a handful (a minority) of Brexiters in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, but they have mostly resigned by now in protest at May’s deal.

And Nigel Farage was an MEP, not an MP.


You ask about Boris in a comment. Boris did launch a campaign to run for PM, but shortly after thereof another MP (Michael Gove) who was also reputed to be a Leaver stepped up to be in the running for the leadership. Gove was widely perceived to be the more serious, more capable and more rounded candidate and therefore likely to win. Furthermore, Gove immediately went on the offensive against Boris who had been a close ally only hours earlier, saying he “cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.” This sequence caused people to say that he had “knifed Boris.”

This forced Boris to re-evaluate his chances of winning, and he dropped out of the race. Gove then subsequently lost to Leadsom. Presumably this loss was contributed to by his perceived poor conduct wrt Boris. His motivation for running in this way was unclear. However, with Gove subsequently backing both the loathed Withdrawal Agreement and a Future Relationship scoffed at by Leavers, questions can be raised about his true status as a Leaver. If Gove was actually a Remainer, then this would not be without precedent. Philip Hammond (the current Chancellor) indicated prior to the vote that he could vote to leave the EU. It has become abundantly clear since that he is a firm Remainer, going so far as to call the Leavers in his party "extremists".

Leadsom dropped out after a media offensive against her for (benign) remarks about Theresa May’s childlessness. Her inability to form a coherent response to this relatively mild media spotlight, caused her support to waiver and undermined her Prime Minsterial image, although by this point she merely needed to win the membership, who could well have backed her for her stance on Brexit alone. I don’t know why she withdrew. Perhaps she simply couldn’t take it, perhaps she was an intentional spoiler candidate.

Edit 2:

For reference, here are some relevant paragraphs from a Huffington Post article on events. All the big news outlets had a consistent description of events.

The most important paragraphs say:

Davis made clear to the PM last Monday that he was “not happy” at leaks that she was to revive the soft Brexit option. Incredibly, he first found out about the details of the new scheme on Tuesday afternoon, after the BBC had been briefed on them for that morning’s Today programme.

“There’s an important constitutional point here,” one ally said. “An unelected civil servant has been used to bypass the party, Parliament and the Cabinet strategy and negotiations committee. The Cabinet Office ‘Europe Unit’ seems to be running the show. Even Tony Blair at least paid lip service to Cabinet Government.

The source continued: “We had a situation where the Foreign Secretary was only given a big thick folder on the Brexit white paper on 2pm, the day before the Chequers meeting to discuss it.”

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    The latest edit only begs the question why Davis remained in post between September 2017 and July 2018. That's a nine month period where allegedly he's not allowed to do his job. That shows either the situation is not as described, or that Davis lacks any confidence that his position had any merit in the first place.
    – Jontia
    Nov 29, 2018 at 9:03
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    Interesting question. I reject the dichotomy you propose. I can think of a number of other scenarios why he stayed in post.
    – 52d6c6af
    Nov 29, 2018 at 9:51

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