What's next for Brexit?

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Members of Parliament have rejected Theresa May's withdrawal agreement for the third time, plunging Brexit into further uncertainty.

Posted: Mar 29, 2019 6:20 PM
Updated: Mar 29, 2019 6:20 PM

The question everyone is asking in Westminster after the third defeat of Theresa May's Brexit plan is, what happens next? The honest answer is no one really knows for sure. But there are some fixed points and other things that can be inferred.

The next week is crucial -- if a credible alternative to May's deal is not found, the UK will crash out of the European Union without a deal on April 12.

In a statement directly after her deal was defeated, May indicated that the parliamentary process was running out of road. "I fear we are reaching the limits of this process in this House," she said.

However she indicated that the government would allow the process of "indicative votes" -- outside the control of ministers -- to continue next week.

Will Parliament agree an alternative plan?

Last Wednesday a group of lawmakers led by a veteran Conservative, Oliver Letwin, took control of parliamentary business in an unprecedented process. Members of Parliament debated and voted on eight alternative options.

While there was no majority for any of them, a plan for the UK to remain in the EU's customs union failed by only six votes. A proposal for a second referendum gained the most "yes" votes overall.

That process continues on Monday -- and Letwin has indicated he wishes to hold a further day of debate on Wednesday. Lawmakers are now busy revising the plans to see if they can be made more likely to pass. Some may be combined with others.

It's possible that, by the end of Wednesday, Parliament will finally coalesce around one option.

What happens then?

If the indicative votes provide some clarity, the Prime Minister could, conceivably, ask Parliament to choose between her plan and the winner of the indicative votes. It's not entirely clear how that would work.

But May left open the possibility of pursuing an alternative plan in her statement on Friday. "We will have to agree an alternative way forward," she said.

That comes with caveats. "The European Union has been clear that any further extension will need to have a clear purpose and will need to be agreed unanimously by the heads of the other 27 member States ahead of 12 April," she said.

"It is also almost certain to involve the UK being required to hold European parliamentary elections."

May has previously said that she would not lead the UK into European elections. But she has changed her mind before, and she could argue -- as she did when she was forced to seek an extension -- that the circumstances have forced her hand.

But in the wake of Friday's vote, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that another extension request would not automatically be approved, and could only be considered if an "alternative plan is credible (and) supported by a majority in the British Parliament."

Will there be a general election?

If May can't bring herself to implement a Brexit plan that includes a customs union, and/or a second referendum -- both of which she has bitterly opposed in the past -- her only other option would be to call a general election.

That's not as easy as it sounds. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act requires a two-thirds majority of Parliament to agree to a general election.

It's not entirely clear that May's Conservative lawmakers want an election, fearing they would be blamed for their chaotic handling of Brexit. They certainly don't want May to lead them into any new vote, after her disastrous performance last time around.

The opposition Labour party, however, relishes the prospect of an election, hoping to capitalize on the uncertainty.

Could the UK crash out of the EU without a deal?

If the UK hasn't gotten its act together by April 12, no longer delay is agreed and no Brexit deal is passed in Parliament, the UK will crash out without a deal.

The European Commission warned on Friday of an increased risk of a chaotic Brexit. "A 'no-deal' scenario on 12 April is now a likely scenario," it said in a statement.

The Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, said: "Ireland has been preparing intensively for a no-deal scenario. But no one should underestimate the difficulties that a no-deal would present, for all of us, including the UK. It is not clear that the UK has fully understood that no-deal is not off the agenda. Rather, it is a growing possibility."

Will Theresa May resign?

The Prime Minister said this week that she would quit if Parliament passed her deal. Technically, with lawmakers having failed to approve her Brexit plan, her offer falls. But most commentators think she has used up all her political capital, and one way or another, her days appear to be numbered.

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