Before Friday, the British Parliament had already rejected Theresa May’s Brexit plan twice — by landslide margins — and then forbade her from bringing the same agreement up for a vote ever again.
But the prime minister was undeterred. In a last ditch effort to save her defining policy proposal, May revealed that she still had a couple of political and procedural tricks up her sleeve. To win over party’s hard-line Brexiteers, she promised that if Parliament approved her proposal, she would resign —clearing the way for one of their kind to take her place. Meanwhile, to herd the requisite Labour votes, she reportedly offered the moderate opposition a buffet of pork projects for their districts.
Most critically — and innovatively — she found a way around Parliament’s prohibition on giving her deal a third vote. Her plan technically consisted of two parts: a withdrawal agreement that establishes the most basic terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union, and the “future relationship document” (or political declaration) which briefly summarizes what U.K.–E.U. relations will be like in the sweet hereafter. Previously, Parliament had voted on those two documents as one package. So, May tore out the (slightly more divisive) “future relationship” bit, and introduced the withdrawal agreement as a stand-alone document, which therefore qualified as a new proposal.
Beyond securing May a third chance, this maneuver also put May in position to turn her no-deal Brexit into the only viable alternative to her own, according to British political commentator Ian Dunt:
Brussels had offered two separate [Brexit] extension deadlines. The first, which applied if [May] got her deal through, was a technical extension. It would last until May 22nd and give time for the government to pass the legislation needed to enact her deal at a domestic level. The second, which applied if no deal had been agreed, lasted until April 12th.
Both dates were defined by the European elections, which are tabled for May 23rd. The EU cannot allow the UK to remain a member of the EU after that date unless it takes part, or else it risks its parliament being illegally constituted. So the first extension was based on the date of the election. The second extension was based on the last date the UK would need to pass laws so it could take part in them. In reality, the EU expects Britain to make a further request before this date if there is no deal, at which point a longer extension is likely to be offered.
But there was a wrinkle in the text which May took full advantage of: the definition of ‘deal’ in the EU position was just the withdrawal agreement, not the future relationship document. All May had to do was get that part through. Then she could work down the clock until April 12th and, once that date was passed, it would no longer be possible for the UK to take part in the elections. That would put her exactly where she wanted to be. No further extensions to Article 50 would be possible. May 22nd would become an immovable exit day … There’d be no more escape routes. All the promises and assurances would be gone. She would be able to threaten MPs that they had to back her plan or accept the abyss.
Alas, Parliament wasn’t much more amenable to half of May’s Brexit deal than it was to the whole of it. The agreement went down in a vote of 334 to 286. Now, by all appearances, May’s plan is truly dead. Parliament will regain control of Brexit on Monday. A range of possibilities lay before it. In the view of many observers, the chances of the U.K. remaining in the E.U. are higher now than they’ve been since the referendum — but so are the chances of Britain crashing out of the union without an agreement in just 14 days.
Britain is expected to present its new plan for Brexit on April 10, at a summit with E.U. leaders. Here’s a quick rundown of the three most plausible scenarios for how it will (or won’t) arrive at a final answer by then:
Parliament approves a sketchy, ultrasoft Brexit.
On Wednesday, the House of Commons held “indicative votes” on a series of Brexit proposals. Lawmakers were given a list of eight options, and invited to check “aye” next to as many of them as they deemed acceptable, and “no” next to those they could not abide. The point of this exercise wasn’t to pass any one Brexit plan, so much as to suss out which options had a prayer of commanding a majority. All possibilities were rejected.
But a proposal to keep the U.K. permanently in a customs union with the E.U. received just eight fewer “ayes” than “nos,” making it the most popular proposal on offer. Under this arrangement, Britain would ostensibly preserve tariff-free trade with the E.U., in exchange for abiding by the union’s trade rules — which, by Brexiting, the U.K. would lose direct say over. In other words, the U.K. would accept less sovereignty over trade than it currently enjoys. On the other hand, this would allow Britain to regain control of its immigration policy without severely disrupting its economy.
Or, that might be what a customs union means. The whole thing would need to be negotiated with Europe. But if the Parliament drafted a sketchy “future relationship document” calling for a customs union — and approved it during the second round of indicative votes Monday — then European leaders “could ‘within days’ revise the political declaration, the non-binding outline of the future relationship, to set the two negotiating teams on that course,” and “ agree at the summit to a limited extension until 22 May,” according to the Guardian.
Parliament asks the British people to settle their disputes through another general election, or second referendum.
The second-most-popular option Wednesday was a second referendum. Under this option, Parliament would settle on a hypothetical Brexit plan, and then have the British people vote on whether they’d rather remain in the E.U., or accept said plan. Such a gambit could not be executed on the existing Brexit timeline. But the E.U. is open to giving the U.K. a longer extension — on the condition that it is a much longer extension, granted on the understanding that Britain wishes to drastically rethink its position. So if Parliament does find a majority for a second referendum, E.U. leaders would likely postpone the deadline for Brexit by at least nine months — a move that would force Britain to participate in the upcoming European parliamentary elections, kicking off an uproar of populist outrage among impassioned Leavers.
Similarly, if Parliament decides that it’s hopelessly deadlocked, and that it needs a new general election to achieve consensus, then a lengthy Brexit delay would also be in the cards.
Parliament sticks to what it knows best, and continues throwing ineffectual tantrums from now until April 10.
If the U.K. cannot decide on any path forward between now and the upcoming E.U. summit, then European leaders will have two options: Let Britain crash out into economic chaos on April 12 (and hope that hubristic little island will quickly return to the bargaining table, having discovered that it really, truly isn’t a great empire anymore), or offer the U.K. a lengthy extension with certain conditions, and let Parliament choose its fate. For the E.U., the latter approach would have the benefit of ensuring that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the final decision to jump off that cliff — and thus, proximate responsibility for the consequences of doing so — would lie in London instead of Brussels.
This is far from a comprehensive rundown of Brexit’s possible futures. Truly, no one seems to know how the U.K.’s long, national nervous breakdown will end. Declining powers have been known to do some unthinkable things whilst raging against the dying of the light.