When this series of articles began more than two years ago, Prime Minister Theresa May had just promised a smooth, orderly Brexit that would lead to a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU while leaving the UK free to strike deals around the world. As the date that she set by which all this would be completed (29 March) passes, the talks on trade with the EU have not even started, the whole negotiating process has become a byword for incompetence and chaos, and the Department for International Trade (DIT) is reduced to announcing that it has completed preparations for trade deals with Zimbabwe, the Palestinian Authority and the Faroe Islands. As two attempts to convince Parliament to back her deal failed, Mrs May was eventually left with no choice but to postpone Brexit past the date she had long promised.

Could it get any more complicated?

When the Withdrawal Agreement that Mrs May had negotiated with the EU failed twice to win the support of Parliament, and did so by resounding majorities, she was forced to go to a meeting with the leaders of the other 27 Member States to ask for an extension. This was despite the fact that, even as she did so, she was making it quite clear that delay was not her choice: in fact, she said in a television broadcast, it was all the fault of recalcitrant MPs — a statement that did little to endear her to the people she needs to move towards supporting her deal.

Unfortunately, the failure to gain support for the deal (which, it should be remembered, was actually concluded before Christmas) has brought the timetable up against an event that has been on the calendar for five years: the next elections to the European Parliament. These will take place between 23 and 26 May 2019 and the problem they pose for the Brexit negotiators is that either the UK must leave the EU before the first sitting of the new Parliament (2 July) or it must take part in the elections. The EU is particularly worried that any decisions taken by the Parliament could be subject to legal challenge if there are no UK MEPs, but the UK is still a Member State.

The Prime Minister had been left in no doubt by confirmed Brexiters in her Party that taking part in the elections would, in their eyes, be the ultimate betrayal so she was (even if reluctantly) pressing for an extension until the end of June. As she had yet again arrived at a summit without any form of backup plan, however, her fellow leaders decided that they would only give her until 22 May (the day before the elections) and that offer was contingent on her deal finally winning parliamentary support. (The extra time would be spent on passing the required legislation.)

On the other hand, if she could not muster the required support to pass the Withdrawal Agreement, then the UK would have only until 12 April either to bring forward a new plan or to leave the EU without a deal. This date was chosen as it gives the minimum amount of time necessary for the UK to prepare for and participate in the EU elections as it is anticipated that a new plan would mean a longer extension would be needed, making participation in the elections essential.

Order, order

Having been told by the Speaker, John Bercow, that she could not keep bringing the same deal back to the House and hoping for a better result, Mrs May was now left with a double dilemma. She had to present something that would satisfy Mr Bercow and, even more importantly, she had to be as sure as she could be that this time it would pass — as the 12 April deadline had now assumed overwhelming importance. After consultations with colleagues, the Prime Minister decided that she could not be confident of sufficient support and repeated her pre-Christmas tactic of deciding not to risk the vote. This time, however, MPs were prepared for the move and brought forward their own suggestion.

A large cross-party group, led by a former member of David Cameron’s Cabinet, Sir Oliver Letwin, put forward a motion requiring time to be made available to debate and vote on alternative ways forward on Brexit (so-called indicative votes). With three ministers resigning from the Government to vote for the amendment, it passed by 27 votes. Clarity at last? While this may be an opportunity for MPs finally (as exasperated EU negotiators put it) to say what they do want, rather than what they don’t, the Government has insisted that it will not be bound by these votes (legally, if not politically, true).

The Prime Minister has, in fact, described herself as “sceptical” about the process. Meanwhile, her position was further undermined by numerous members of her own Party saying on social media, the mainstream media and even in face-to-face meetings with her, that the whole process would work better with a different leader.

No, no, a thousand times no

Well, not quite a thousand times but when the various options were put before MPs, all eight were voted down although the proposal for a confirmatory referendum was defeated by only 27 votes while Ken Clarke’s proposal for a customs union lost by just eight. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister was playing what looked like her final card as she told her backbenchers that, if her deal was accepted before the new deadline, she was prepared to stand down and allow a new leader to take forward the subsequent negotiations on the UK future trading relationship with the EU.

This apparently impressed Boris Johnson who said that on consideration he was now prepared to back her deal. Unfortunately for Mrs May he was not followed by any significant number of switchers, leaving her still well short of a guaranteed majority.

Whatever next?

At a press conference after the meeting of EU leaders, European Council President Donald Tusk pointed out, not for the first time, that the ball is in the UK’s court. He also said that “until 12 April, everything is possible. No deal, a long-term extension and revoking Article 50. We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best”. Everyone still seems convinced that “no deal” would be that worst option but, with the Prime Minister continuing to use it as a threat against those in her Party who will not back her deal, it remains a possibility. The problem with deadlines, as several commentators have pointed out, is that if no action is taken before they arrive then the default option comes into play — and in the case of Brexit the default option is no deal.

The EU is not only preparing for the worst. According to the European Commission, its preparations are complete and it is ready to immediately apply its rules and tariffs at its borders with the UK. This will mean checks and controls for customs, sanitary and phytosanitary standards, and verification of compliance with EU norms. Despite the considerable preparations of the Member States’ customs authorities, the Commission has warned, these controls could cause significant delays at the border.

It has published 90 sector-specific preparedness notices which are available at ec.europa.eu and which provide detailed guidance to the different sectors affected by Brexit. “These proposals are temporary in nature, limited in scope and will be adopted unilaterally by the EU,” the Commission makes clear. “They are not ‘mini-deals’ and have not been negotiated with the UK.”

Has anyone got a cunning plan?

As Mr Tusk said, every possibility is still in play. In no particular order, these are:

  • that the Prime Minister finally gets the necessary backing for her deal and the UK leaves the EU on 22 May

  • that her deal is agreed but only on condition that the final decision is given back to the people in a second referendum

  • that she resigns/is forced out of office and a new leader seeks a long extension to renegotiate the deal

  • that one of the options considered in the indicative vote exercise slowly gathers support as a viable alternative and is put to the EU by Mrs May (or her successor)

  • that the UK decides to revoke Article 50 and stay in the Union

  • that Parliament finds itself totally unable to reach agreement and the only option is a general election

  • that the UK leaves the EU (crashes out) without a deal on 12 April.

As the title of this article suggests, anyone who is confidently forecasting which of these scenarios will finally play out is deluding themselves. There are simply too many variables to make an informed forecast. However, it might be worth noting that local councils across the country have been asked to make sure that they would have the staff and buildings available to run the European elections on 23 May. So someone in Whitehall is at least contemplating the possibility that we might need British MEPs for several more years.

Last reviewed 3 April 2019