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War-gaming the Brexit vote: seven scenarios for what happens next

Parliament is in deadlock. What can we expect?

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

Parliament is in deadlock over Brexit. So what can we expect in the coming days and weeks after the vote? These are the scenarios currently being war-gamed.

May’s deal passes

A political shock: Theresa May squeaks over the line after convincing Brexiteers that it was her deal or no Brexit — and Remainers that it was her deal or a no-deal Brexit. The DUP then rains on May’s parade. Seething over the backstop, it declares that the confidence and supply agreement is over for good. This scenario could involve delaying the initial vote in the hope this gives MPs time to come around.

It passes on a second vote

Theresa May’s deal fails to pass first time round by 50 votes. Insisting Nothing Has Changed, the Prime Minister flies to an EU council meeting the following day where she wins some ‘clarifications’ for wavering MPs. The markets start to get jittery about no deal and sterling falls. Nervous MPs begrudgingly vote the deal through. Ministers refer to this as the TARP method, in reference to the market panic which helped the US government push its 2008 bank bailout through Congress.

EEA membership

When the withdrawal agreement returns for a second vote, MPs add an amendment instructing the government to negotiate a Norway-style Brexit which would see the UK enter the EEA — the thinking being that this avoids the perils of the backstop. Remain-minded cabinet members support this safer option, as do a chunk of Tory MPs, Labour MPs and the DUP, because Northern Ireland would not be treated differently. May’s position becomes untenable as EEA membership means the continuation of freedom of movement: her one remaining Brexit red line.

Early election

The Prime Minister’s deal loses by more than 100 votes. As civil war breaks out in the Tory party (again), Labour makes its play for an early election and tries to defeat the government in a confidence motion. Angered over the backstop, the DUP say they will vote with opposition MPs unless the Tories agree to change tack. May refuses, the motion passes and the Commons has 14 days to approve a new government — perhaps the Tories led by a DUP-friendly leader like Boris Johnson. However, any Tory Brexiteer promising to ditch the backstop and pursue a hard Brexit loses the backing of pro-Remain Tories like Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve. The country goes to the polls.

Second referendum

There is no consensus on a way forward. MPs ask whether the only way to break the deadlock is to go back to the people. Cross-party MPs tied to the People’s Vote campaign say they will vote for the government’s deal on the condition it is put to a public vote — with Remain on the ballot paper. Brexiteers ponder whether the only way left to get a proper Brexit is to win another referendum. Desperate to break the impasse, May says she will take her deal to a vote. Fights ensue over what the question should be. Article 50 is suspended to make time for a second referendum.

No-deal Brexit

The government’s Brexit deal is rejected across the House. MPs then spend the next eight weeks bickering about the varying merits of EEA membership, a second referendum and revoking Article 50. May faces a challenge over her leadership from MPs who blame her for the mess. No consensus can be found, the clock ticks on and time runs out: the UK leaves on WTO terms. A belated attempt at a negotiated no deal gets under way to allow planes to fly, citizens to travel and goods to flow between the UK and the Continent.

No Brexit

After May’s historic defeat, the letters go in and Theresa May loses a confidence vote. Concluding this is not a time for partisan politics, cross-party MPs come together and form a government of ‘national unity’. Their first step? To revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit — at least until an alternative plan is decided.


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