If the U.K. government and Parliament don’t agree on a workable plan for Brexit by next Friday, their country is on track to crash out of the European Union with no deal. If there is one thing Prime Minister Theresa May and most (but not all!) members of Parliament can agree on, it’s that a no-deal Brexit would be materially disastrous for Britain and fatal to their own political fortunes as well. Nonetheless, despite an escalating series of desperate moves this week, they are still distressingly far from a final deal.
On Monday, Parliament narrowly rejected several potential alternatives to the thrice-rejected Brexit deal May negotiated with the E.U. (If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s almost an exact repeat of the strategy they tried last week.) All four indicative votes failed, but two “soft Brexit” motions came within striking distance of a majority. The first, tabled by Conservative whip Nick Boles, would have the U.K. enter a permanent customs union with the E.U. The other, dubbed “Common Market 2.0,” is a Norwegian-style arrangement that would entail joining the European Free Trade Association and European Economic Area. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn had encouraged his party’s MPs to vote for both options, which most did, but ten Labour MPs voted against the customs union and 25 rejected the common market proposal — more than enough to flip the outcomes.
The deep internal divisions Brexit has uncovered in both major parties were instrumental in ensuring that there was no majority for any option. While Labour is riven between MPs advocating a soft Brexit and those holding out for no Brexit at all, the Tories are split into several factions, with some willing to back May’s deal, others seeking a softer Brexit, and the right flank demanding a hard Brexit, even if that means crashing out with no deal. Boles reacted to the defeat of his motion on Monday by resigning from the Conservative Party entirely, lashing out at its refusal to compromise.
On Tuesday, May convened her cabinet for a seven-hour come-to-Jesus meeting in which nobody seemed willing to come to Jesus. The prime minister emerged from the meeting with an announcement that she would seek another “Brextension” from the E.U. (the original deadline was March 29) and would sit down with Corbyn to try and find a compromise. For May, this represented a major step down from her previous insistence that no deal was better than a bad deal, indicating that she was now willing to accept a softer Brexit plan that a large faction of her own party would reject.
This olive branch to the opposition did not go over well among the Tories: Two ministers quit the government in protest on Wednesday, including Brexit minister Chris Heaton-Harris, who claimed in his resignation letter that the country was better prepared for a crash-out than May realized and that the country should have departed the E.U. last Friday as planned. May has now faced more resignations, and at a faster pace, than any of the last five prime ministers who preceded her, and the bloodletting may not be over: She could ultimately lose 15 ministers, including five cabinet ministers, over this outrage.
Just as the Tory Brexiteer rebels are nipping at May’s heels, Corbyn himself is now facing pressure from his party to push for a second referendum: Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry told her colleagues she would insist that any cross-party pact be put to a public vote, with the option to cancel Brexit and remain in the E.U. on the ballot. The Scottish National Party is also increasingly firm in its demands for a second referendum. On the other hand, one of May’s Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party, hinted that his party could hold their nose and vote for a customs union as “a temporary staging post” toward the U.K. being able to make its own trade deals again (although just how the U.K. gets from point A to point B in that scenario remains a mystery).
The prime minister and Corbyn did not come to any conclusions in Wednesday’s discussions but described them as “constructive.” May’s hope is that she and the opposition leader can either agree on a compromise solution, or at least on a binding process to conclusively determine what form of Brexit is acceptable to the House of Commons. Their talks are continuing today.
Wednesday also saw further drama in Parliament, with two knife-edge votes. MPs split 210-210 — the Commons’ first tie since 1993 — on whether to hold yet another round of indicative votes next Monday. Speaker John Bercow, who is only allowed to vote to break ties, cast the deciding vote against the motion, arguing that it would be improper for him to “create a majority which does not otherwise exist.” At the end of the day, by just one vote, the lower house passed hastily prepared legislation reaffirming their commitment to avoiding no-deal and requiring May to request a further delay from Brussels, with Parliament getting a say in the details of that extension.
Any further delay would require the unanimous consent of the 27 other member states of the E.U., which is not a given. The two-week extension they granted last month was controversial, and far short of the three months May had asked for. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said on Wednesday that the bloc would not grant any more short-term extensions without a final deal in hand by the April 12 deadline. The U.K. is looking at asking for a longer delay, perhaps nine months, but with the option of bringing it to a close as soon as Parliament approves a plan. This could require the U.K. to participate in the impending election of a new European Parliament in late May, which the E.U. has been keen to avoid. Given how thin E.U. leaders’ patience has been stretched, there is a very real chance that the May’s request will be rebuffed at next Wednesday’s emergency European Council meeting.
Even the E.U. officials who have been most willing to cut the U.K. a break are anticipating a crash-out next week. The E.U.’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted after Monday’s vote that a hard Brexit was now “nearly inevitable.” The bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier called the no-deal scenario “very likely,” as did Juncker in his statement yesterday. Meanwhile, Bank of England governor Mark Carney said the risk of a disorderly Brexit was now “alarmingly high.” Deutsche Bank announced on Monday that it had raised its estimate for the probability of a no-deal Brexit from 20 to 25 percent and was shorting the pound. Many businesses have already prepared for the worst, meaning the toll of Brexit on the British economy is already partly locked in, no matter what happens now.
To get a sense of how bad a no-deal Brexit would be, look at the letter leaked to the Daily Mail on Monday in which Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill warned senior ministers of a 10 percent increase in food prices, a recession worse than the one in 2008, the weakening of public order and national security, and the need to reintroduce direct rule in Northern Ireland for the first time since 2007. It’s not hard to see why May is willing to sacrifice what’s left of her political career to avoid this; really, the only question is what on earth took her so long.
A fundamental obstacle to U.K. legislators passing a Brexit deal is and has always been that most MPs really never supported Brexit in the first place. Even most Conservative MPs, including May herself and most of her cabinet, were Remainers (and remain so), even as they pretend otherwise to pander to their pro-Leave constituents. Nearly three years after stumbling into a popular mandate for a choice most MPs know to be bad, they can’t bring themselves to comply with it.
Parliament has now voted three times against a no-deal Brexit, but MPs have no control over the decisions of European heads of state, much less the inexorable forward march of time. Absent an acceptable deal with majority support (or a politically calamitous decision to revoke Article 50), the U.K. leaves the E.U. next Friday, ready or not — any delay just kicks that can a little farther down the road. That’s why the hard Brexiteers look most likely to get what they want right now: Everyone else has to get their preferred solution through Parliament and then past the E.U., but all they have to do is wait.