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May’s Brexit Deal Is Probably Going to Fail. What Happens Then?

Posted December 10, 2018 7:45 a.m. EST

On Tuesday, Britain’s Parliament will vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, a long, legally-binding agreement on terms to withdraw from the European Union, and a vaguer set of political pledges for the country’s future relationship with the bloc.

It is widely anticipated that the deal will be rejected. The important question is by how much.

If May loses by a narrow margin, then she will probably still be in the game. She could ask EU Union leaders for some changes to the deal, though they are unlikely to give her much. She could then send the new deal back to Parliament and hope that does the trick.

— May Throws a Hail Mary

If May suffers a major defeat, by 100 votes or more, she might have to consider a bold gesture to remain in power.

May seeks a second Brexit referendum: In this scenario, voters might be asked to choose between May’s plan and remaining in the European Union.So far she has ruled this out, but if she has no Plan B it might be a possibility. This would require the consent of Parliament.

May calls a general election: May could try to increase her majority in Parliament to get her deal through. But she tried this last year and ended up worse off. An attempt now could weaker her further.

— May Loses Political Support

A crushing defeat for May would also put her in political jeopardy.

May faces a leadership challenge: Pro-Brexit lawmakers in her own Conservative Party could challenge her.But the pro-Brexit faction tried in November and failed to get the 48 Conservative lawmakers it needs to trigger a contest. Still, a bad defeat could change the calculus.

May resigns: Nothing in her record suggests May would do this. In fact, everything suggests it is the last thing she would consider. But occasionally May has pulled surprises (such as calling an election in 2017).

Parliament Intervenes

Parliament could flex its muscles and take more power over what happens if May’s deal goes down in defeat.

Opposition parties call for a general election: The opposition Labour Party will probably try a no-confidence motion to bring down the government. But it would almost certainly fail to collect the numbers to succeed.

Opposition parties call for a second referendum: If everything else fails, Labour could call for a “people’s vote.” But there would still be a great deal of opposition to this in Parliament, so things would have to seem quite desperate.

Postpone Brexit: Lawmakers might call on the government to postpone the day of withdrawal (March 29). Under article 50 of the EU treaty, suspension of the two-year negotiating period needs the approval of all 27 member states. They would probably agree if Britain were to hold another election or referendum, or had a clear new plan. But not if the government simply wanted to haggle for more concessions.

Soft Brexit: Lawmakers could press for a softer Brexit, with a closer relationship to the European Union — perhaps achieving something like Norway’s status. This might gain a lot of support across parties, but it has practical problems, and May and the Labour Party have rejected it. So it might require a change in prime minister first.

— Nobody Agrees

Parliament has had a very hard time finding a majority for any outcome. If this persists the crisis could grow.

Britain leaves with no deal: Technically this is the default option, but it is more like a nuclear option considering the chaos that could ensue. There is a large majority in Parliament against the no-deal scenario, but it is unclear precisely what parliamentary mechanism lawmakers could use to stop it. So this is unlikely, but not impossible.