This is the question I am most often asked and also the hardest one to answer.
I will try to provide a framework for the many overlapping threads:
The possible outcomes
- No Deal (Chaos Brexit)
It is often said that there is no majority in Parliament for this, however there is also no majority for anything else. The key point is that, if nothing happens, on March 29th, the UK leaves the EU with No Deal, and there must be an Act of Parliament to stop it. It is the default option and, as such, this chaotic outcome should not be underestimated.
To avoid it, one of the other outcomes needs to find a way to a majority.
- May’s Deal
This option will have be voted on in Parliament and is universally expected to fail.
The fundamental problem is that this deal spells out that Brexit is clearly worse than Remain and clearly worse than Fantasy Brexit.But to be fair any Brexit deal would have the same problem.
With the news today that Labour may be attempting to form a coherent policy on Brexit, this option has gained a glimmer of a realistic chance.
- “Fantasy” or “Have cake and eat it” Brexit
Given that it would require more compromise from the EU, the EU is never going to offer anything like this and will not allow any renegotiation for this purpose.
- Delay Brexit while we work out what to do
A delay would need the unanimous agreement of all 27 EU countries, so it seems rather unlikely for them to do so.
If the options are so simple, why is it all so complicated?
The simplest answer is that this situation is unprecedented so there is no clear procedure to follow.
Here are some of the wild cards:
- Vote of No Confidence in May.
This requires letters from 48 Tory MPs. However, they have not managed it yet, and may never get there. Even if they manage to get enough to trigger a vote, it is likely that May would win and then she could not be challenged for another year, her position strengthened. But if May lost, then we head to a new leadership election which is a lengthy process, pretty much running down the clock to Mar 29th. This is why only the most hardline Chaos Brexiteers champion such a route.
- Vote of No Confidence in the government.
It is highly likely that Labour will call for one after May loses the vote on her deal (and probably if she lost a vote of No Confidence within the Tory party), but it unclear if they expect to win it. If they did and forced a general election, it would be fascinating to see what the manifestos would say. With May as leader, it seems likely she would stand on a platform of her deal. Do Brexiteer rebels have to honour the manifesto pledge? Note there is no time to replace her with another leader before an election!
There is another important reason this is so complex. A lot of UK politicians do not understand the EU because they have never tried to. They really believe the EU can be forced to renegotiate. Talking to politically engaged people here, I get the sense that they are so engrossed in Westminster and party politics, they miss the point by assuming that important decisions are made here in the UK, without considering the viewpoint of our negotiating partner. I have previously used the example of Greece; if you misunderstand the EU then you play chicken and lose. Unfortunately, political journalists seem to have the same issue. They are obsessed with covering domestic political gossip here in the UK and so the coverage focuses on Westminster intrigue and the related confusion, whilst simultaneously missing the issues that are relevant.
- Another Referendum?
I think that a large majority of MPs and the electorate do not want this, but it still may happen if Parliament cannot agree any deal. The important issue here would be what question is asked. One aspect of this that I have not seen discussed is that the EU would have to agree to a 6-month delay to Brexit to allow this to happen. Therefore, the EU would have to agree with the question posed; if the vote was between Remain and May’s Deal, they might agree; if No Deal were one of the options, I do not see why they would do this.
My personal forecast
I still think that the most likely outcome is that something close to May’s deal is agreed.
Perhaps losing the first vote will actually help her bring the rebels into line?
- Voting pattern could resemble the TARP votes in the US in 2008
i.e. the politicians want to make a statement that they hate the deal before reality strikes and they have to vote for it the second time
- Labour officially endorse a new referendum which brings the Brexiteers into line
- May renegotiates a softer Brexit (recent EFTA talk) and gets enough Labour MPs to support
- We crash out of the EU, have chaos for a short period and then ask the EU if we can have the deal please and they allow it.