'Brexit means Brexit' means what?

Story highlights

  • Britain's PM Theresa May has vowed to implement the will of the country that voted to leave the EU
  • So now it's time to get into the details of new trade deals, immigration and more

(CNN)Editor's Note: Robin Oakley was political editor and columnist for The Times newspaper in London from 1986 to 1992, the BBC's political editor from 1992 to 2000, and CNN's European Political Editor between 2000 and 2008. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

When the European Union referendum gamble came unstuck and provoked David Cameron's resignation there were three words at the heart of Theresa May's pitch to become his successor: "Brexit means Brexit."
    British Prime Minister Theresa May outside her official residence,10 Downing Street.
    She spelled it out plainly: "The campaign was fought, the vote was held and the public gave their verdict. There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum."
    In case ministers had missed the message, May repeated the Brexit means Brexit mantra to the drastically reshaped cabinet she assembled in Downing Street having become the new Prime Minister. But what does Brexit actually mean apart from "meaning Brexit?" What shape will it take? How much involvement with Europe will be left? What will a Brexited Britain look like?
    Britain voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU. But the only question on the ballot paper was Remain or Leave. What we didn't get to vote about was on what terms Britain would be leaving. Even the Leave campaigners, seemingly as surprised by the result as the opinion pollsters, had no immediate blueprint to offer. And almost a month later -- as parliament prepares for its summer break -- we are still no wiser.

    The Three Brexiteers

    Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will help frame a deal with the EU following Brexit.
    We do know who will be responsible for framing a deal. May appointed a trio of Leave campaigners -- The Three Brexiteers -- to pick apart 40 years of treaties: Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit Secretary David Davis and International Trade Minister Liam Fox. The Prime Minister's message was unspoken but clear: "You boys wanted out: now sort it."
    The three -- never great personal buddies -- even have to share the Chevening country house normally handed to the Foreign Secretary alone for schmoozing foreign dignitaries. Who says May has no sense of humor?

    Striking a deal

    The Three Brexiteers -- Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit Secretary David Davis and International Trade Minister Liam Fox now need to decide what a Brexited-Britain will look like.
    But what have we heard from the Three Brexiteers about the shape of the kind of deal they envisage? Apart from the custard in the clouds prediction from Davis that new trade deals will be struck with markets ten times the size of the EU, not a word. Not because the Three don't want to disclose their negotiating hand too early but because they haven't even got Plan A yet. For the moment they are less involved in starting to shape deals with Europe than in furnishing new offices and conducting turf wars to recruit the best negotiating teams.

    The EU citizens already in Britain

    That task hasn't been made any easier by the fact that Britain, like other members, out-sourced trade negotiations to the EU. When Canada was seeking a deal with the EU, it employed 830 negotiators; a parliamentary committee concluded that Britain has about 20 with appropriate experience. The bill for hired-in consultancy will be huge.
    One key subject will be immigration. Politicians agree concern over incomers was a major factor in boosting the Leave vote in the referendum. The first simple question there is: what will happen to the 3 million EU citizens living and working in Britain (130,000 of them in the UK's much-prized National Health Service) and the 1.2 million Britons living and working in the other EU countries?
    Pronouncements by Davis have done nothing but muddy the waters as he mused publicly about having to apply a cut-off date on any guarantee to EU citizens if the looming Brexit actually produced a new immigration rush.
    "Take Back Control" was the Leavers' favorite slogan. But ministers are already backtracking on expectations. Best not to talk numbers, said Johnson: "After leaving the EU it will be possible to have a system of control. But we can't do it immediately."
    Then there is that problem of getting some notion of where the other side, the 27 EU nations, might be willing to compromise and where their red lines will be after Article 50 has triggered the formal negotiating progress early next year. EU leaders are insisting that they won't start talking terms, even informally, until Article 50 is triggered. So, we have a standoff.
    In essence, Britain would like full access to the EU's single market without having to accept the free movement of people that has seen EU immigrants come into the UK. Ministers talk hopefully in private of the EU countries which trade to their benefit with Britain (Germany exports 800,000 cars a year to the UK) not wanting to cut off their noses to spite their faces. But some leaders want Britain to be seen to suffer from Brexit just in case others seek to follow its example. The EU is never going to hand a quitting country a better deal than the other 27 get. So the shape any eventual trade-off will take is currently anybody's guess.