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Theresa May’s Brexit Problem

LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May reportedly “needed some time to compose herself” in a recent meeting with her presumed ally Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor categorically rejected May’s proposal to do a “side deal” on European Union nationals living in Britain before the United Kingdom officially triggers Brexit negotiations by invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon.

After an initial phase of post-referendum arrogance and euphoria, it has become increasingly obvious that May’s government completely misread the likely EU response to a British exit from the bloc. It now seems likely that the UK will continue to stagger from failure to failure at an accelerating pace.

May’s dilemma stems from the fact that the “Leave” coalition, while sharing certain conservative values, comprises two incompatible factions: mostly middle-class, affluent pensioners who want to leave the EU because they think it is too bureaucratic and protectionist; and mostly working-class voters who want to leave because they favor more protectionism.

Clearly, there is no form of Brexit – or post-Brexit Britain – that will satisfy both groups. This explains May’s desperation to push Brexit through as quickly as possible. She wants to get out before voters realize that the Leave campaign sold them a false bill of goods, including the promise that they could keep all of the benefits of EU membership, particularly full access to the European single market, without having to allow free movement of labor.