Usual political protocol has largely crumbled, with British politicians defying voting orders, ministers resigning, and MPs leaving their parties to create bi-partisan alliances. What follows is a summary of the likeliest—or most talked-about—Brexit scenarios.
1. No-Deal is ruled out
Until now, it was thought Wednesday’s vote would offer MPs a chance to rule out a no-deal Brexit.
Prime Minister Theresa May has given her Conservative parliamentarians carte blanche on whether to vote for the Green amendment.
Also known as the Malthouse compromise, it proposes delaying Brexit until 22nd May 2019; extending the ‘transitional period’ until 30 December 2021—but does not explicitly exclude the possibility of no-deal.
However, May has whipped Tory MPs to vote against the more categorical Spelman amendment, which states parliament “rejects the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement.”
What this means:
Most analysts believe MPs will vote against a no-deal Brexit tonight. Another vote on whether to ask the EU for an extension would then be held on Thursday.
However, practically speaking, rejecting no-deal sends the process back to square one. With neither a consensual deal nor the possibility of crashing out regardless, parliament has three options.
One is to rapidly agree on an exit framework which does not demand the European Union prematurely concede elements of the relational framework. Terms of withdrawal are one thing; what and how things happen after that are questions traditionally negotiated separately.
By seeking legally-binding assurances that there be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, May is arguably jumping the gun in an attempt to pacify Brexit hardliners like the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland.
Two, request more time to agree on an exit framework. If that an extension is granted, see above for next steps.
Three, call Brexit off altogether by revoking Article 50.
2. Article 50 is extended
Article 50 is a European law written into the Lisbon Treaty which allows member states to break away from the EU.
Britain invoked Article 50 on 29th March 2017, thus launching a two-year countdown to 29th March 2019, the official divorce date.
In February, MPs overwhelmingly voted for the Cooper amendment, which forces Mrs May to delay Brexit if a no-deal scenario materialises.
If convinced by Britain’s justifications, the EU could grant it an extension ranging from two months to two years.
What this means:
As European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker pointed out, time is not so much the issue: consensus on concrete next steps is.
In over two years of negotiation, parliament has only ever agreed on what it did not want: no solution suggested by either British or European negotiators has ever obtained a majority.
Europe’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for May, complicate matters further, as it’s unlikely EU leaders will want to let the UK participate. On the other hand, Brexiteers could interpret being kept in the EU yet denied voting power as confirmation of the continental group’s tyranny.
3. The UK leaves the EU without a deal
As things stand, Britain is legally obliged to exit the European Union on the 29th March, regardless of which agreements are or are not in place.
What this means:
In Strasbourg this week for last-ditch talks, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, begged European lawmakers “not to underestimate the risk [of a no-deal] or its consequences.”
Meanwhile, British Confederation of Business director-general Carolyn Fairbairn warned no-deal would be “a sledgehammer for our economy,” as major business partners like Ford and Airbus threaten to scale back British operations.
Analysts argue no-deal would place British infrastructure—heavily dependent on imports ranging from manufacturing parts to food and medical supplies—in crisis.
However, Brexiteers like Boris Johnson have insisted no-deal now represents the safest “path to self-respect.”
A no-deal Brexit may lead the UK to re-establish direct rule over Northern Ireland, Environment secretary Michael Gove declared in parliament Wednesday. Gove affirmed the “uniquely challenging context of a no-deal Brexit” would leave the devolved Northern Ireland with “no executive”, necessitating London's intervention.
4. Theresa May’s government collapses
If Conservative party rebellion bubbles over, Theresa May will find her leadership directly challenged. Conservative MPs have already walked out to join former Labour MPs in the newly-formed Independent Group; ministers have resigned, and several more still threaten to.
Moreover, House speaker John Bercow has implied he could designate as “out of order” any more government attempts to present May’s withdrawal agreement to parliament. Parliamentary protocol confirms this is the speaker’s prerogative.
Finally, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said it is time for a new general election. Several notable commentators, including on the political right, have called for Theresa May to step down.
What this means:
It’s hoped that general elections might provide British leadership with a renewed mandate to negotiate with Europe.
But it remains certain that snap elections would engender political upheaval beyond what the Brexit process has wrought so far—and no immediate (or certain) solutions to the Brexit conundrum either.
A dissolution of May’s cabinet only really demonstrates one thing: how potent and multi-pronged the tug of war engulfing British politics currently is.
5. A second referendum is held
A handful of MPs from various ends of the political spectrum have floated the idea of allowing the public to vote again.
Prominent Conservatives like Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve have echoed Labour parliamentarians Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle to urge for Britons to return to the ballot.
However, both parties’ officially eschew the prospect of a second referendum, and cross-party amendments recommending a second referendum have failed.
Recently, the Independent Group also tabled an amendment calling for a second referendum.
What this means:
Another referendum would supposedly provide fresh clarity on what the public wants, in light of the last two years.
It would also allow younger citizens previously barred from voting to participate in a process which will shape their futures.
Ideas have included asking citizens whether or not they endorse Theresa May’s revamped deal; whether they accept leaving without a deal or prefer to extend negotiations; and whether they want to remain in the EU altogether.
Credit for this article's header image goes to Getty.