What happens next for Brexit: five scenarios

There is now no plan and no one knows when – or even if – Britain will leave the EU. What are the possible escape routes from chaos?

As ever with Brexit, every effort to move forward leads the government and country deeper into crisis, and further into the unknown. Last Friday at 11pm the UK was meant to have left the European Union. But Brexit day passed – amid protests by Leavers – with us still in the EU, because nothing had been agreed. Now no one in government or parliament knows when we will leave, if we ever do.

The official position at the start of last week, as stated by the EU, was that our membership could be extended until 22 May – but only if the prime minister got her deal through parliament by this weekend. She failed to do that.

Anticipating this outcome (May losing again), the EU said the UK would then leave with no deal on 12 April, unless it could come up with a convincing reason for further delay, which would mean taking part in European elections on 23 May. This weekend, however, there is still no agreed plan.

On Wednesday Theresa May said she would stand down to let a new Tory leader take over the next phase of negotiations if Conservatives backed her deal. When the withdrawal agreement was voted on again last Friday, however, 34 Tories defied her and she lost by 58 votes. Even her extraordinary “back me to sack me” gamble had failed. May responded by saying parliament should now try to find an alternative way forward. She did not, though, rule out putting her deal back to parliament yet again this week.

To add to the confusion, a Tory leadership contest to replace May is almost certain to take place this summer. More chaos looms. Even if a Brexit plan is agreed by parliament and an extension is granted based upon it, the next Tory leader could just tear it up when in power. “We have run off the road into the ditch,” said a government minister yesterday. “We try to move forward but we just get more stuck.”

So what could the government try now to shunt things forward? What could happen next?

Parliament tries to force May’s hand by agreeing an alternative Brexit plan

MPs will vote on Monday on a series of alternatives to May’s deal. The aim is to use whatever is agreed to argue for a longer extension with the EU at a European summit on 10 April. MPs did this for the first time last Wednesday and none of the eight options – including plans for a customs union, a Norway-style deal, Labour’s Brexit plan, and a second referendum – secured a majority.

This time the Speaker, John Bercow, is expected to choose only those options that did best last time or are thought to be gaining support. Plans to leave with no deal, or to revoke article 50, may well, therefore, not be selected.

Speaker John Bercow
The Speaker John Bercow will select Brexit options to be voted on. Photograph: PA

The votes will take place at 8pm with the results expected at 10pm. May has refused to be bound by any option that prevails. So on Wednesday MPs will lay plans to pass legislation that will mandate her to ask for an extension, based on whatever has been agreed.

Pitfalls It could be that, again, none of the options gains a majority. The process would also be rendered pointless if May’s deal is put back to the Commons and passes before legislation to bind her to an alternative is passed. Tory grandee Oliver Letwin who is masterminding the process, says he does not know if any option will gain a majority. Nor does he know if there will be time to pass the legislation to bind the government to an alternative through the Commons and the Lords in time for the summit on 10 April.

May brings her deal back

Downing Street says it plans to put the full deal back to parliament again this week. Talks are continuing with the 34 Tories who voted against the withdrawal agreement on Friday, as well as the 10 Democratic Unionist party MPs and pro-Brexit Labour MPs. The prime minister may well try this on Tuesday or Thursday, after the results of indicative votes are known, but before legislation to bind her to an alternative has been set in stone. This will enable her to pit her deal against any alternative that has been agreed.

Many Tory hard Brexiters would never accept a customs union or membership of the single market (as in the Norway model), or a second referendum, so when push comes to shove No 10 hopes they could buckle. If May wins it is game over. The UK would leave on 22 May.

Pitfalls Many of the 34 look like they will not budge. Many would prefer a no-deal Brexit and some now say they could tolerate a long extension, which they believe would allow a new Tory leader to ditch the Irish backstop. They say May’s deal is the worst of all worlds. Some in the DUP say they would even prefer to remain in the EU than accept May’s deal, which they cannot tolerate as it will include the backstop and divide the UK. The other big problem for May is that the Speaker has said she cannot bring her deal back again to parliament unless it is substantially different to what was defeated before by huge margins in two meaningful votes.

Conservative MP Oliver Letwin
Conservative MP Oliver Letwin is behind moves to build a parliamentary consensus. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

MPs vote for a second referendum

In Wednesday’s series of indicative votes the option to call a “confirmatory” referendum on any deal agreed by parliament, with remaining in the EU being the alternative, won more votes than any other option. On Monday it will face another test. Even if it fails then, backers of the idea say there will be more chances, and that the closer no deal gets the better its prospects are. Labour now supports the idea of a confirmatory vote. It could be brought back as an amendment to legislation to approve any new withdrawal deal, or to the withdrawal agreement bill, the last leg of the Brexit process. For Theresa May, it could be a way to get her deal through parliament, albeit subject to a vote of the people that would risk losing Brexit altogether.

Pitfalls There is limited Tory support for a second referendum, and considerable opposition to it on the Labour benches. Many MPs fear that it will cause a public backlash and a loss of faith in British democracy. There are also fears it would deliver another close result which would leave the country as divided as it is now.

No deal. Parliament fails to agree and we crash out

Some hardline Tory MPs would be happy for the UK to crash out with no deal, although parliament has voted against this several times. Officially if nothing is agreed by 12 April, no deal is the default. It could happen by accident. Hard Brexiters say it would at least mean they had delivered Brexit. In theory the EU could stick to its guns and, if there is no UK plan in place by 10 April, say: “That’s it, there is no extension. You are out.”

Pitfalls In reality, the EU will do everything it can to avoid no deal and the vast majority of MPs will too. Even if May has no plan to put forward on 10 April, the EU will still probably give the UK more time.

May tries to call an election

If nothing can be agreed by parliament, May has hinted that there could be a general election. Several of her senior ministers have also said there could be an election if her deal does not go through. Labour and the Scottish National party are also calling for an election. The EU would also be prepared to accept one as the reason for granting a lengthy extension well beyond 22 May.

Pitfalls Even if May did try to trigger an election she would in the first instance need to get a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons to do so under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Many Tory MPs and ministers would vote against doing so. They think an election is an appalling idea. Who, they ask, would lead the Tories into it? What would the Tory and Labour manifestos say on Brexit? What if another hung parliament was returned? May’s last experience in calling a snap election in 2017 led to the Tories losing their majority, and becoming reliant on the DUP. “It would heap more chaos on chaos,” said a senior minister.


Toby Helm

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
It’s decision time for Theresa May’s Brexit deal. What happens next?
MPs look likely to reject the PM’s withdrawal agreement. There are a number of scenarios that could follow

Michael Savage Policy Editor

13, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
As hundreds of thousands march in London, what next for Brexit?
These are the options in another critical week for the Commons, from indicative votes to the chances of revoking article 50

Toby Helm Observer political editor

23, Mar, 2019 @12:59 PM

Article image
As Corbyn shifts Labour towards soft Brexit, Tory jitters grow
Labour’s expected move on staying in a customs union will embolden its own MPs – and Tory rebels

Toby Helm Political editor

24, Feb, 2018 @9:31 PM

Article image
Delaying Brexit may be our last chance to prevent a historic mistake
The Conservative MP and former minister says he will vote for an article-50 extension to achieve a better deal – not delay Brexit or seek another referendum

Oliver Letwin

24, Feb, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Rebel Labour MPs set to quit party and form centre group
Growing discontent over policy on Brexit, antisemitism and Venezuela spurs breakaway movement

Toby Helm Political editor

02, Feb, 2019 @11:51 PM

Article image
Labour set to call vote to topple Theresa May’s government
Opposition MPs told to get ready for no-confidence vote as top Tories admit they see no hope for PM’s Brexit deal

Toby Helm and Michael Savage

12, Jan, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Brexit: furious Tories will try to oust May if UK fights Euro elections
PM says Brexit could ‘slip through our fingers’ as Conservatives fear taking part in EU election would boost far right

Toby Helm and Michael Savage

07, Apr, 2019 @5:32 AM

Article image
Bitter Tory fight over Brexit set to overshadow Conservative conference
The new PM will set out her vision for a moderate, inclusive Conservatism but battles over Europe will dominate in Birmingham

Toby Helm Observer political editor

01, Oct, 2016 @9:57 PM

Article image
Poll surge for Nigel Farage sparks panic among the Tories and Labour
Support for the Conservatives at the European elections slumps to 11%, less than a third of what the Brexit party is polling

Toby Helm and Michael Savage

12, May, 2019 @8:54 AM

Article image
May versus parliament: a showdown over Brexit with her own party
After a fraught week, the PM faces a series of critical votes

Toby Helm and Anne Perkins in Quebec

10, Jun, 2018 @6:00 AM