Theresa May’s premiership has been declared dead before. After her election losses last year, the British prime minister appeared to be on the brink of resigning.
With the official who negotiated May’s Brexit deal writing that he “cannot support the proposed deal,” the government was suddenly thrown into jeopardy. In an evening news conference, May vowed to fight for her deal and rejected any suggestions that she might be on the way out of office.
But May is under attack from both sides of the political spectrum. Staunch pro-Brexiteers argue the deal does not go far enough and would keep Britain under the sway of the E.U. while taking away all powers to shape that bloc. Pro-European members of Parliament (MPs), meanwhile, think that Britain should stay more closely aligned with E.U. laws and within the bloc’s customs union.
When May told Parliament on Thursday that “we will leave the E.U. in a smooth and orderly way,” her remarks were met with laughter by lawmakers.
So, what could be next? Here are some of the likely scenarios.
Two key choices ahead
1) MPs vote in favor of May’s deal
Even though May’s deal pleases neither pro-European nor pro-Brexit MPs, the prime minister may still have leverage to push through her deal or a modified version of it. The most powerful argument in her favor would be that the problem might not be her, but Brexit itself.
While her deal is imperfect on many levels, it would still help Britain avoid a “no deal” Brexit that could cost jobs and trigger a recession. At the same time, there has been cross-party agreement to respect the results of the 2016 referendum to leave the E.U. Many MPs who want to uphold that promise but are scared of a no-deal Brexit will back May.
Still, the prime minister is not believed to have the necessary votes for that to happen, and with every minister resignation, chances are getting slimmer.
2) MPs vote against May’s deal or dump her
She can’t bank on much support from the opposition. The Scottish National Party is disgruntled that it was left out of the negotiations, and the Liberal Democrats will vote against the deal out of principle. Most Labour Party members are expected to also reject the agreement, partially because a May defeat increases the likelihood of a future Labour prime minister.
Worse even, May is facing a rebellion among her own allies. Pro-Brexiteers will vote against her deal, and the party that has kept her in power since last year — the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — might join them. The DUP leadership fears May’s deal could create a de facto border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. That’s a red line for a party committed to keeping Northern Ireland fully within the U.K.
Labour cannot topple May by itself, but the prime minister’s own allies may help with that. Moreover, if the DUP were to withdraw from its agreement to keep the Conservative Party — led by May or any successor — in power, then new general elections would be almost inevitable. Without the DUP, the Tories lack a majority in Parliament.
What it means for Brexit
A no-deal Brexit is unpopular but may be inevitable
If May’s deal is rejected, chances of a no-deal Brexit rise. While leading pro-Brexiteers have said that they would prefer this scenario over a bad deal, a no-deal Brexit would probably not be a deliberate choice but instead an accidental outcome of a government unable to obtain a majority for any better solution.
Most stakeholders know very well that a no-deal Brexit could have catastrophic repercussions on the British economy. As an island, Britain is dependent on its trade with the E.U., and a no-deal Brexit would disrupt all those ties overnight. The government may have to ship in goods to keep supermarkets stocked, and nobody knows for sure what the effect of a no-deal Brexit would be on the millions of Europeans working in Britain.
Nothing really changes
Given the risks of a no-deal Brexit, Parliament could theoretically reject May’s deal until Christmas and still approve a similar document next year.
But even then, it would be unclear what sort of relationship Britain would have with the E.U. in the long term. What would Britain’s immigration policy look like, especially as think tanks predict that the country will face a severe labor shortage going forward? Could it stay in the customs union permanently to prevent a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country?
Theoretically, Britain could extend the agreed transition period — in which Britain would continue to abide by E.U. rules without having a say on shaping them — year after year, arguing that Britain isn’t ready to fully withdraw, yet. But in that case, Britain would be outside the E.U. only on paper.
That’s one of the reasons Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Thursday that he cannot accept having to choose between no deal and May’s deal.
Going back to Brussels
The question is what other choices there are. Corbyn has implied that going back to Brussels to get a better agreement could be one way out of the dilemma. But the E.U. has proved over the past year that it is bound by its own treaties and has little interest in adapting its rules to British demands.
It’s unclear why that would change under Corbyn, unless he agreed to stick to staying in the single market and the customs union. This would mean Britain would essentially still be subject to E.U. laws, which has been rejected many times by all parties. Such a solution would probably be possible only in the unlikely scenario that Corbyn’s Labour Party campaigned on that promise in general elections and won an overwhelming mandate for it — or supported a second referendum.
A second referendum
Supporters of a new vote on Britain’s E.U. membership argue that a second referendum is not only an option but also a must, given that the promises on which pro-Brexit politicians campaigned have largely proved to be misleading. Critics maintain that posing the same question again because MPs didn’t like the British people’s response would ruin trust in British democracy.
Amid all the confusion, there’s one certainty, though: Britain has only four more months left to figure it all out. It’s set to either leave or crash out of the E.U. by March 29.