Last month's agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom to move the official date of Brexit to Oct. 31 has somewhat reduced the sense of urgency connected to the United Kingdom's departure from the Continental bloc. But while delaying Brexit has bought British politicians some time, it has not eliminated the divisions within Prime Minister Theresa May's government, reduced the fragmentation in the House of Commons or eliminated long-term questions about the final shape of the Brexit deal. Indeed, the coming weeks and months will be plenty full of Brexit drama; there are several possibilities for how events will unfold, and we have outlined them below.
The decision to postpone Brexit until Oct. 31 has reduced immediate uncertainty about the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union, but it has also left long-term questions about the future unanswered. In the meantime, British politicians remain as divided as ever about the kind of Brexit that they want.
- May's government and the Labour Party could reach a Brexit agreement. For over a month, May's Conservative-led government and Labour, the main opposition party, have been discussing a Brexit agreement that both sides could support in Parliament. The negotiations include several topics, such as post-Brexit workers' rights and the incorporation of some EU single market rules and standards, but the main obstacle to a pact is Labour's demand that the United Kingdom remain in a customs arrangement with the European Union.
May's government has consistently objected to staying in the EU customs union, noting that it would prevent the United Kingdom from negotiating goods-related free trade agreements with other countries (though trade deals covering services would still be possible). Recently, May has made ambiguous statements about staying in the customs union, but her Cabinet is divided on the issue. Some ministers worry that such an agreement would lose too much Conservative support in Parliament and not gain enough Labour support.
If the British government can reach a pact with Labour that both sides accept, its next challenge will be to win support for that plan in Parliament. While such a cross-party deal stands a good chance of being approved, it's difficult to predict how large of a Conservative rebellion will vote against the deal.
- May's government may put the withdrawal agreement bill to a vote in Parliament. Alongside its negotiations with Labour, May's government is considering whether to put the withdrawal agreement bill — that is, the piece of legislation that gives legal effect to the withdrawal agreement her government negotiated with the European Union last year — to a vote in Parliament, rather than the agreement itself. In theory, doing so will circumvent the speaker of the House's reluctance to authorize a fourth vote on an agreement that has already been rejected three times this year. The withdrawal agreement bill would also be subject to amendments, opening the door for some Labour members of Parliament to support it as long as they could make changes. Approving the withdrawal agreement bill would possibly pave the way for approving the withdrawal agreement itself. But the government has been inconsistent about acknowledging this strategy. This hesitance indicates that May is not sure that this is a vote she can win.
- May could ask for lawmakers to conduct a new round of indicative votes. Earlier this year, the House of Commons held a series of votes on potential Brexit scenarios. The votes only confirmed that lawmakers are extremely divided; they failed to agree on a single Brexit option and could only agree on the fact that they do not want a no-deal scenario. If negotiations with Labour fail to produce an agreement, or if the government chooses not to hold a vote on the withdrawal agreement bill, May can always go back to Parliament and ask lawmakers if there is any type of Brexit that they want. During a round of indicative votes on April 1, a plan to keep the United Kingdom in the EU customs union was defeated by only three votes. It's possible members of Parliament have moved somewhat closer to consensus at this point.
- May could resign. In early 2019, May promised her party that she would resign after Parliament approves a Brexit deal. But some legislators are getting restless and want May to announce a concrete date for her departure. Conservative Party rules dictate that there can be only one leadership challenge every 12 months, so after the failure of a December 2018 attempted ouster, no one can make a formal leadership challenge against the prime minister until December. However, the party can look for indirect ways to increase political pressure on May to resign.
The Conservatives performed poorly in municipal elections on May 2, and for European Parliament elections on May 23, current opinion polls put them in a humiliating third position after the Brexit Party and Labour. If the European Parliament vote goes as poorly as expected, the calls for May's resignation will grow louder.
While a weak electoral performance in the European Parliament elections would encourage the Conservatives to remove May, it could discourage the party from holding an early general election, because many lawmakers would likely lose their seats. Consequently, if May resigned, the Conservatives would appoint a new party leader to become prime minister and, rather than hold early elections, would try to negotiate with the European Union on a new Brexit agreement.
The problem, at that point, would become the political leanings of the new prime minister. Opinion polls of most popular party members suggest that the new Conservative leader is likely to be a supporter of a hard Brexit, lowering the chances of an agreement with the European Union. A hard Brexiteer as prime minister would also reduce the chances of the Commons approving an exit plan, as lawmakers overall tend to be more supportive of softer forms of Brexit. Ultimately, no matter what Parliament says — for example, lawmakers could try to make a no-deal exit illegal — negotiations are in the hands of the prime minister. However, if the prime minister goes against Parliament's Brexit wishes, lawmakers could deploy a nuclear option: a no-confidence vote against the new prime minister, which, if successful, would lead to a general election.
- The United Kingdom could hold an early general election. A general election would happen in two circumstances: either because the British government decides it is impossible to approve a Brexit deal with the current composition of Parliament (in which case it would need support from two-thirds of the members in the Commons to trigger an early election) or because Parliament wins a no-confidence vote against the prime minister. An early general election would serve as an unofficial referendum on Brexit, requiring parties to define their exact desired Brexit plan in their platforms.
A victory by Labour would make a new referendum on Brexit slightly more likely, but several things would have to happen first. Labour would have to win the election and appoint a government. Then, it would have to negotiate with the European Union and fail to obtain the kind of Brexit that it wants (membership in the customs union). At that point, a Labour-led government would then consider holding another Brexit referendum.
The Bottom Line
These scenarios are not mutually exclusive; the British government could very well try several of them — for example, a cross-party Brexit deal, another vote on the existing deal and then a series of indicative votes — before falling back on May's resignation if all those plans fail. The European Union and the United Kingdom still want to prevent a disorderly Brexit to minimize economic damage, so an agreement is still possible — as is another Brexit delay if an accord remains elusive. But the chaotic state of British politics means that no one can eliminate the possibility of a no-deal departure.