The British government plunged into chaos last week after Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her draft Brexit deal.
The drama follows the prime minister as she heads to Brussels this week, where European leaders plant to finalize the draft withdrawal agreement on the terms of Britain’s exit — better known as “Brexit” — from the European Union.
But the process is far from over. Both the EU and UK parliaments need to approve any agreement. And the UK, in particular, is deeply divided over this deal.
The most vocal opposition comes from May’s own Conservative Party, a fractured mess of loyalists and hardline “Brexiteers” who want a more decisive break with the European Union. The opposition Labour Party has also said it will resist the deal. At least right now, the withdrawal agreement doesn’t seem to have the votes.
This standstill could push everyone toward a “no deal” Brexit, the “cliff edge” scenario that would be bad for the EU, and likely catastrophic for Britain. Planes would be grounded, ports would be clogged, food would rot, and garbage would pile up, and those are just some of the possible scenarios.
There’s also the question of May herself. She will likely survive this latest rebellion against her leadership but the prime minister’s job is far from secure.
As Brexit’s March 29, 2019, deadline inches ever closer, here’s a look at some possible outcomes.
The current state of play in the UK
This 585-page draft agreement tackles some of the critical outstanding issues in the forthcoming EU-UK break-up, specifically the divorce settlement (how much the UK must pay the EU, which is likely at least £39 billion, or about $50 billion) and the post-Brexit status of UK citizens and EU nationals living in the EU and UK, respectively. It also includes the Irish “backstop,” ensuring that the politically sensitive border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU country) remains open, even if the UK and EU don’t finalize border details in a post-Brexit deal.
The draft withdrawal agreement calls for a 21-month transition period until December 31, 2020, to give the EU and the UK time to figure out their future relationship, the hard details of the trade, security cooperation, and more. (The transition can, according to the draft, be renewed one time.) A political declaration will lay out the broad outlines for this arrangement.
Once those details are finalized, the majority of the 27 EU member states must sign off, and, at some point, the deal will need to be approved by the European Parliament. The UK Parliament must also ratify the deal with a “meaningful vote.”
But getting the deal approved by the UK Parliament will likely be much more difficult, since May faced domestic resistance to her Brexit plan even before she published the text.
May’s plan, briefly, is an attempt at a “soft” Brexit compromise, but even those who favor closer alignment with the EU don’t love this deal. They say it’s not as seamless as they’d like it to be, and they see it as a capitulation to hard Brexit crowd.
The hard “Brexiteers” in her party are virulently opposed — though it’s unlikely they’d be pleased by any deal. They see May’s deal as preventing the UK from reclaiming control of its borders and laws, and blocking it from making trade deals with other countries. Under May’s draft deal, the UK will also still have to follow EU customs rules for a period of time, but will lose its decision-making power in the bloc.
Then there’s Labour, the opposition party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Labour has its own disagreements about Brexit within the party, but it has collectively rejected May’s deal, saying it doesn’t meet their required pillars for a satisfactory Brexit. The party also sees this as an opportunity: If May and her deal implode, it might put them closer to regaining control of the government.
There’s pushback from other corners, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a party from Northern Ireland. The DUP’s partnership with the Tories is keeping May in power. This party has resisted the draft deal; they object to the Irish border backstop plan because it would apply different rules to Northern Ireland, compared to the rest of the UK.
The bottom line: Few are satisfied with this compromise, because the UK is deeply divided between those who want out of the EU and those who never wanted to leave in the first place. No side actually “wins” with this deal.
And May’s own government is divided on the plan. After she secured cabinet approval of her draft deal last week, two top Cabinet ministers quit in protest the next day, including her Brexit secretary. (Several other junior members also stepped down.) It’s a sign the divisions within Britain are deep enough to derail whatever May brings home from Brussels.
The UK Parliament could approve the deal … at some point
The UK Parliament will likely vote on the Brexit deal in mid-December. May needs 320 votes to pass the agreement, but it’s not clear yet if she will have the support.
Back in 2017, May tried to shore up support for Brexit negotiations by calling snap elections. Her plan backfired, and May’s Conservative Party ended up losing the majority, and formed a minority government with the DUP, whose 10 votes it needed to retain power.
The DUP said May has broken her promise on Brexit, and seems unlikely to support the deal.
As many as 51 Conservative party members have said they wouldn’t vote for a previous “soft” Brexit plan, but the number of total defectors right now is unclear. May’s cabinet will try to whip votes, though that won’t likely convince the hardcore Brexiteers.
It seems likely May will need to peel off some Labour votes in order to get her draft deal passed. (Labour has broadly rejected the deal, but there’s still a chance that some MPs could break off and support it.)
So while it’s too early to say May’s deal is headed for defeat, it’s definitely not looking great.
At least on the first try. Experts say if the Brexit deal gets voted down in December, there’s a chance May might be able to try again, especially if the financial markets or businesses freak out at the increased prospect no-deal scenario.
In other words: The UK will have to be pushed to the no-deal Brexit brink to get Parliament to finally act.
Which is why some observers say this deal might eventually pass — but maybe not until the second try. If the markets react severely, members of Parliament may be cowed into going “back and take a second look” at the deal, according to Spencer Boyer, a senior fellow with the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
May could step aside after a leadership challenge from her Conservative party
Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs led the charge against May last week. At least 26 Tories confirmed they submitted letters of no confidence against May, arguing her handling of Brexit has made her unfit to lead.
At least 48 MPs must submit letters to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, the Conservatives’ parliamentary group, to trigger a “no confidence” vote within only the party. May needs a majority — 158 Tory MPs — to survive. If she loses, she’d have to step aside. If she defeats the challenge, she can’t be challenged by her party for 12 months.
May’s opponents, with at least 26 public letters, were a little more than halfway to 48, but their rebellion fizzled out, as it appeared her opponents overestimated their support.
May seems to have fended off the immediate threat, but the pro-Brexit crowd isn’t likely to stop agitating against her.
But she could end up surviving any leadership challenge because of the schisms within her own party. Politicians aren’t sure that if they lost May that they would be able to replace her with someone who was more supportive of their own goals.
“The reason she’s managed to last has been that there isn’t a clear alternative [to her],” Simon Usherwood, a professor at the University of Surrey and deputy director of an independent Brexit think tank, told me.
The UK manages to get a Brexit deadline extension
In March 2017, May formally triggered Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. That set off a two-year countdown to the formal Brexit deadline of March 29, 2019.
If her draft Brexit deal fails in Parliament, that could push the UK closer to the brink of a devastating no-deal Brexit. But the UK might try to finagle an extension, arguing it needs more time to approve a deal, or negotiate concessions, or buy time in the case of political uncertainty, such as a leadership change.
There’s no guarantee the EU would go for this. The complications are many, including upcoming EU parliamentary elections in May. And Europe would rightly be skeptical of more talks, given how long it took to get this draft agreement.
The UK could hold a second referendum
The idea of a second referendum, or a “people’s vote” on Brexit, has been percolating for a while. Perhaps years of Brexit drama has been enough to change some people’s minds, or the public could solve the gridlock in Parliament, the thinking goes.
But how to get a second referendum — or what it would look like — is complicated. May said she would not call for one, so barring any last-minute about face or leadership change, it’s unlikely to happen. It would also be a near-impossible feat to hold a campaign before the March 29, and would probably require begging the EU for an Article 50 extension.
There’s also the fact that a second referendum would likely be messy. It’s not clear what the referendum would ask. Would it be a test of May’s Brexit deal versus no-deal? Would it involve multiple choices — leave, stay, or take the deal? Would it be a do-over of the original 2016 “leave” versus “remain,” which will still disappoint at least half of a bitterly divided country and not necessarily change the outcome?
Some Labour MPs are pushing to have a vote on a second referendum, but Corbyn has declined to come out strongly in favor. “It’s an option for the future, but it’s not an option for today,” Corbyn said over the weekend.
Proponents of the second referendum who see it as a Brexit out might be deluding themselves, too. “The last two national votes we’ve had haven’t gone the way that people thought they would,” Usherwood said. “So do you really want to open up a huge amount of uncertainty?”
May’s government could fall apart
May currently faces a leadership challenge within her own party. But if MPs turn against her in Parliament, that could throw the entire government into turmoil.
The DUP sent a few warning shots, refusing to support Conservative legislation twice this week to pressure May on a better Brexit deal. May needs DUP’s 10 votes to stay in power; if they defect from her government, the Conservatives lose a majority. That could lead to a no-confidence vote in Parliament, potentially triggering general elections.
Labour, meanwhile, has been pushing for new elections — and there’s always a chance they could get them if May’s deal blows up badly enough in Parliament, or her government crumbles. “Labour’s top priority is to get back in power,” Boyer told me.
Nobody really knows what will happen
A second referendum or a new general election seems implausible now. But Brexit’s one promise is to be unpredictable.
What we do know is that what happens in Brussels this weekend will set off the next phase of the debate in Britain. But it’s unlikely the deal will change drastically — meaning this draft text is close to what Parliament is going to get.
Erik Jones, the director of European and Eurasian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, told me that even if MPs object, there’s not much more Europe can give that will sway the ideologues on either side.
“You’re not going to get any significant concessions,” he said. “If you think that there’s any silver bullet that could change the minds of enough members of the British Parliament having voted it down once, it just ain’t there.”
Looming over these debates is the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. The prospect of the economic and logistical pain of crashing out of the EU may be enough to push MPs to accept an imperfect Brexit deal. “Everyone’s made a lot of noise and has been unhappy about this, that and the other, but they haven’t been able to agree on an alternative plan of action,” Usherwood said.
So, in the end, the current Brexit deal may be the only option. Ultimately, Usherwood said, if everything looks even less attractive than this deal, then that’s what will end up getting signed. “But,” he added, “who knows?”