Britain is scheduled to leave the EU – with or without a formal exit deal – on March 29.
Huge questions remain around the terms of its departure, or whether it will even happen, amid calls for a second referendum to halt Brexit after two years of fraught negotiations.
The British government has yet to sign a formal agreement with the EU on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal and their future relationship.
Beleaguered Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May is trying to renegotiate a sticking point in a draft deal she has agreed with Brussels called the “backstop”, which aims to avoid the creation of a hard customs border in Northern Ireland.
Last week she suffered another bruising defeat in parliament over her strategy, which amounts to telling fractious MPs to back her deal or face the prospect of withdrawal from the EU on March 29 without one.
Economists say such a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous.
Regardless, May will tell EU leaders that her latest defeat does not stop her building a majority for her Brexit plan – if only Brussels were to tweak the backstop, which it refuses to do.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London, said: “For any rational prime minister the latest defeat would probably cause them to think again, but Theresa May is still set in her ways and intent on pursuing the same course as before.
“She seems absolutely wedded to her strategy of running down the clock and presenting MPs with a ‘my deal or chaos’ ultimatum.”
May is due to update parliament about her talks with EU leaders on February 27, when MPs will again vote on her strategy.
The prime minister faces her biggest challenge to date from a cross-party group of MPs led by Labour MP Yvette Cooper seeking to extend the Article 50 March 29 deadline – and hence kick a “no deal” scenario into the long grass.
Professor Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe academic think-tank, said: “May’s plan has basically rested on her ability to get concessions from the EU, to come back and to scare leavers into thinking that we are going to end up with a second referendum and to scare remainers into thinking that we are going to end up with no deal – and if the Cooper amendment takes no deal off the table, at least in the short term, it wrecks her plan.”
Moreover, May could be forced to let her rebellious cabinet ministers vote according to their conscience – as many as six could resign if she fails to extend Article 50.
No, it would merely give parliament more time to build a consensus around what it wants by forestalling a “no deal” Brexit – and would not deliver a second referendum.
Although May herself insists she intends to lead Britain out of the EU as planned on March 29, a senior civil servant has reportedly revealed she may accept an extension.
Bale said: “It is looking increasingly difficult for Theresa May and the government to meet that March 29 deadline not just because it is difficult to get the legislation through in time but there is simply insufficient agreement about Brexit.
“I suspect the EU would rather grant us an extension to find out properly what we want before allowing us to leave with an inadequate deal or no deal at all.”
Another vision of a “soft Brexit” has been put forward by leaders of the opposition Labour Party that would keep the UK in a customs union, removing any need for the backstop.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has held his cards close to his chest but is due to hold talks with Brussels’ chief negotiator Michel Barnier in a bid to break the deadlock.
Menon said: “The saving grace for the prime minister is that Corbyn is still spectacularly vague on what exactly he means by a ‘softer Brexit’.
“Corbyn himself is very reluctant to be specific and that helps the prime minister because she can say: ‘Look, nothing he says makes any sense’.”
Bale believes that while the PM’s latest defeat in parliament may strengthen Corbyn’s hand – May shows no sign of budging.
“It’s been obvious since she was defeated in parliament in January that she can move to a softer Brexit and get cross-party support for that – but she is persisting in this belief that she can, in the end, frighten people into backing some variant of her deal with just a few weeks or days to go.”
Another option that has failed to gain momentum in parliament but has public support is for a second referendum – which is proving increasingly divisive within the Labour Party.
Such tensions could have an enduring effect on British politics as the leave versus remain alignments created by Brexit displace traditional left-right loyalties.
Bale said: “There are strains within both main parties and it could be that we will see splinters, particularly from the Labour Party, on this.”
May has enemies on both wings of her party and experts agree that whatever the outcome of Brexit, her days as Conservative leader – and hence prime minister – are numbered
Menon said: “One theory is that she gets a bit of a bounce for taking the country out of Europe, the other is that it will take her opponents time, but they will remove her.”
Bale is convinced she will be forced out rapidly.
“After Brexit, she goes in fairly short order – the Conservative Party will want [to be] rid of her as soon as possible.”