With Britain now set to leave the EU on April 12 and with no formal agreed deal in place, there could be a no-deal Brexit, yet another vote on May’s agreement or even a second referendum. Some on Friday suggested that a new government would be a possible next step.
The EU has previously indicated that it would extend Britain’s membership to allow any election to be held. It would also would mark the country’s third general election in four years.
After the vote on Friday, the leaders of the main opposition Labour party and Scottish National Party both responded by calling for May to now hold a general election.
Why an election?
However, Wednesday’s most successful option, a permanent customs union with the EU, is viewed as a key reason why an election may be required. Lawmakers only narrowly defeated the customs union option and it could even command a majority support in Parliament during another vote on Monday.
Should that happen, May faces a problem. Despite it being viewed as a way forward by many in Parliament, she would struggle to support a customs union as it contradicts the current Conservative Party manifesto.
Additionally, many Conservative Brexiteers dislike a customs union as it prevents Britain from arranging its own trade deals. Should May offer her support, it would likely split her fractured party even further.
However, a fresh election at this stage could also weaken the number of opposition lawmakers in Parliament, giving the Conservative Party a stronger mandate to enact Brexit. Some commentators note that the U.K. leader may appeal to the public that by rejecting her deal with Europe, the rival Labour Party has time and again failed to honor the 2016 referendum result.
The Conservative election strategy could be boiled down to one simple appeal — back us and we’ll end this Brexit mess.
Big risk to May
But an election carries risk and could create more problems for the Conservative Party than it solves.
Many U.K. lawmakers don’t want to take part in European parliamentary elections on May 23 and any election would likely force this. It doesn’t resolve the Conservative Party split over Brexit policy and it could be punished in the polls by voters who see May’s government as responsible for failing to deliver Brexit on time.
Polls suggest any race to 10 Downing Street remains tight and the Labour Party could formulate a “softer Brexit” involving a customs union that the U.K. public may be ready to support.
Paul Dales, the chief U.K. economist at Capital Economics, said the U.K. leader firstly needs to ask the EU for another delay to the Brexit process.
“The EU has indicated a delay would be longer (perhaps a year?), would require the UK to take part in EU elections in May and that the UK would need to indicate ‘a way forward’,” he said in a research note.
“If a delay can’t be agreed, then no Brexit (by revoking Article 50) or a no deal could happen. Oh and all this needs to be done within two weeks when in all honesty we don’t know if Mrs May will be the Prime Minister in two days’ time! A general election is also possible.”
Why is Britain leaving the European Union?
A referendum – a vote in which everyone (or nearly everyone) of voting age can take part – was held on Thursday 23 June, 2016, to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. Leave won by 51.9% to 48.1%. The referendum turnout was 71.8%, with more than 30 million people voting.
What was the breakdown across the UK?
England voted for Brexit, by 53.4% to 46.6%. Wales also voted for Brexit, with Leave getting 52.5% of the vote and Remain 47.5%. Scotland and Northern Ireland both backed staying in the EU. Scotland backed Remain by 62% to 38%, while 55.8% in Northern Ireland voted Remain and 44.2% Leave.
What is the European Union?
The European Union – often known as the EU – is an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries (click here if you want to see the full list). It began after World War Two to foster economic co-operation, with the idea that countries which trade together were more likely to avoid going to war with each other.
It has since grown to become a “single market” allowing goods and people to move around, basically as if the member states were one country. It has its own currency, the euro, which is used by 19 of the member countries, its own parliament and it now sets rules in a wide range of areas – including on the environment, transport, consumer rights and even things such as mobile phone charges.
When is the UK due to leave the EU?
For the UK to leave the EU it had to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which gives the two sides two years to agree the terms of the split. Theresa May triggered this process on 29 March, 2017, meaning the UK is scheduled to leave at 11pm UK time on Friday, 29 March 2019. A European court has ruled that the UK can decide to halt the process and stay in the EU at any time up to the deadline. Alternatively the process can be extended if all 28 EU members agree. But at the moment all sides are focusing on that date as being the key one, and Theresa May has put it into British law.
So is Brexit definitely happening?
As things stand, the UK is due to leave the European Union on 29 March, 2019, regardless of whether there is a deal with the EU or not.
But could Brexit be cancelled?
Yes. Stopping Brexit would require a change in the law in the UK, something neither the government nor the main UK opposition parties want to do at this point. The European Court of Justice ruled on 10 December 2018 that the UK could cancel the Article 50 Brexit process without the permission of the other 27 EU members, and remain a member of the EU on its existing terms, provided the decision followed a “democratic process”, in other words, if Parliament voted for it.
Could Brexit be delayed?
Possibly. The EU might agree to extend Article 50 if its leaders thought it would help smooth the process or if there was a chance the UK could end up staying in, possibly through another referendum, but it would only be by a few months. The UK’s main opposition party, Labour, wants to force a general election and, after winning it, go back to Brussels to negotiate its version of Brexit. That would also require Brexit day being pushed back from 29 March. Labour has kept open the option of pushing for another referendum, which would also need an extension. Some government ministers have also been talking about asking the EU for an extension of a few weeks to get all the necessary legislation through Parliament
Could there be another referendum?
It would have to be put into law by the government, which they have said they will not do. They could be forced into holding another referendum if enough MPs voted for it. Dozens of Labour MPs want another referendum, as do a smaller number of Conservatives and most of the minor parties in the House of Commons. But without the official support of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who could order all Labour MPs to vote for it, those campaigning for another public vote say they do not currently have the numbers to get it through. Mr Corbyn has not ruled out getting behind another referendum but he wants to explore other options, such as toppling the government and forcing a general election, first.
Why do politicians want a deal?
The main point of having a deal between the UK and the EU is to ensure as smooth as possible an exit from the EU for businesses and individuals – and to allow time for the two sides to hammer out a permanent trading relationship.
What is in Theresa May’s deal with the EU?
After months of negotiation, the UK and EU agreed a Brexit deal. It comes in two parts.
A 585-page withdrawal agreement. This is a legally-binding text that sets the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU. It covers how much money the UK owes the EU – an estimated £39bn – and what happens to UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK. It also proposes a method of avoiding the return of a physical Northern Ireland border
A 26-page statement on future relations. This is not legally-binding and sketches out the kind of long-term relationship the UK and EU want to have in a range of areas, including trade, defence and security.
Here’s a guide to the declaration on future relations
What is the transition period?
It refers to a period of time after 29 March, 2019, to 31 December, 2020 (or possibly later), to get everything in place and allow businesses and others to prepare for the moment when the new post-Brexit rules between the UK and the EU begin. It also allows more time for the details of the new relationship to be fully hammered out. Free movement will continue during the transition period, as the EU wanted. The UK will be able to strike its own trade deals – although they won’t be able to come into force until 1 January 2021. This transition period is currently only due to happen if the UK and the EU agree a Brexit deal.
What would happen if the UK left without a deal?
The UK would sever all ties with the EU with immediate effect, with no transition period and no guarantees on citizens’ rights of residence. The government fears this would cause significant disruption to businesses in the short-term, with lengthy tailbacks of lorries at the channel ports, as drivers face new checks on their cargos. Food retailers have warned of shortages of fresh produce and the NHS is stockpiling medicines, in case supplies from EU countries are interrupted. Government ministers and multinational companies with factories in the UK have also warned about the long-term impact on the British economy. Brexit-supporting MPs claim it would not be as bad as they say and the UK would save on the £39bn divorce bill, as well as being free to strike its own beneficial trade deals around the world.
Here is a collection of papers published by the government on a ‘no-deal’
Would trade with the EU continue?
The World Trade Organization sets rules for countries that don’t have free trade deals with each other, including tariffs – the taxes charged on the import of goods. Without an agreement on trade, the UK would trade with the EU under World Trade Organization rules.
Here is a full explanation of what that would mean.
Is Theresa May’s Brexit deal now dead?
Theresa May’s deal cannot come into effect until it has been passed by Parliament. She had planned to put it to the vote on 11 December but pulled it at the last minute because she was facing a big defeat. She did put it to the vote on 15 January 2019, after seeking “further reassurances” on MPs’ concerns from the EU, and suffered a big defeat – the biggest for a sitting government in Parliamentary history in fact. She lost by 230 votes.
The deal is not dead, however. Mrs May survived an attempt the following day by Labour to oust her as prime minister, with all the 118 Conservative MPs who had voted against her deal voting to keep her in power. They say they want her to have another go at getting a better deal from the EU, something she had previously insisted was not possible.
So what is happening now?
Mrs May is trying to get a better deal from the EU. She wants to get changes to the legal text she agreed with the 27 other member states. MPs held a series of votes on 29 January on potential changes to Mrs May’s deal. Most – including a bid to delay Brexit to prevent a no-deal departure – were defeated.
MPs did back a call for the government to rule out a no-deal Brexit, but it was non-binding and Mrs May has repeatedly insisted that the only way to ensure no deal is to back a deal.
The key vote for the prime minister was when MPs backed a call to replace the controversial Northern Ireland backstop clause with “alternative” arrangements. Mrs May believes the backstop is the main reason so many of her MPs and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who she relies on to support her in key Commons votes, are against her deal.
She has promised to return to the Commons by 13 February at the latest with fresh proposals, which will be put to the vote. MPs will again be able to suggest alternatives, including, for example, delaying Brexit or holding another referendum.
Can the PM succeed in modifying the deal?
The EU has insisted it will not alter the legal text it has agreed with the UK and that the controversial Northern Ireland backstop is part and parcel of that. The UK side hopes they will cave in at the last minute and agree to changes, when faced with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.
When the UK leaves the EU, the 310-mile border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will become the land border between the UK and the European Union.
Neither side wants to see a return to checkpoints, towers, customs posts or surveillance cameras at the border, in case it reignites the Troubles and disrupts the free cross-border flow of trade and people. But they can’t agree on a way to do that.
The UK and EU agreed to put in place a “backstop” – a kind of safety net to ensure there is no hard border whatever the outcome of future trade talks between the UK and the EU.
The backstop agreed between the two parties would keep Northern Ireland aligned to some EU rules on things like food products and goods standards. That would prevent the need for checks on goods at the Irish border, but would require some products being brought to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK to be subject to new checks and controls.
The backstop would also involve a temporary single customs territory, effectively keeping the whole of the UK in the EU customs union. If future trade talks broke down without a deal, the backstop would apply indefinitely. The arrangement would end only with the agreement of both the UK and the EU.
Why are so many MPs against it?
They fear it could leave Britain tied to the EU indefinitely with no say over its rules and no ability to strike trade deals with other countries.
Are there any solutions to it?
If there was an obvious solution that people agreed guaranteed no return of a hard border in Ireland it would probably have been implemented by now. However, Mrs May has said she wants to talk to the EU about possible alternatives. These include a “trusted trader” scheme to avoid physical checks on goods flowing through the border, “mutual recognition” of rules with the EU and “technological” solutions.
She also wants to discuss a time limit on the backstop and a “unilateral exit” mechanism. All of these options have previously been ruled out by the EU.
What happens if Mrs May can’t get the deal through the Commons?
It is hard to say for certain. There are number of possible scenarios, including:
Leaving the EU without a deal
Another EU referendum (this can only happen if the government brings forward legislation to hold one and a majority in the Commons supports it)
A general election – Labour’s preferred option but it would need a no-confidence vote in the PM to be passed
MPs could take control of the Brexit process from the government
Some of these options would involve delaying the official Brexit date of 29 March by a few months to allow time to renegotiate a deal, if the EU agrees to that.