There are now just 70 days remaining before the UK is slated to leave the EU. Earlier this week, the UK Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed Brexit Withdrawal Agreement by a historic margin of 432-202. This was the largest ever defeat for a sitting government in the House of Commons, with more than a third of May’s own party voting against her. Both those supporting a harder and softer Brexit voted against the agreement, though they disagree about what should happen next.
Theresa May survived a subsequent vote of no-confidence by a close margin of 325-306. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could try to force another vote of no confidence, though this seems unlikely for now.
As for what comes next, May is meeting with leaders from other political parties in an effort to find a compromise that would be acceptable to Parliament and the EU 27. She has until Monday to come back to Parliament with a proposal.
Modest additional tweaks or assurances from the EU will almost certainly not change the parliamentary math. May will need to move toward either a harder or softer Brexit if she is to sway MPs, though both options have downsides in terms of earning votes.
Officials from the EU and its member states are standing firm, saying the current deal is the only one on offer. They may yet show some flexibility, but only if it would yield a softer Brexit. In any case, the European Commission would need a revised mandate from member states to negotiate changes.
Whatever motion May brings forward next will be amendable. Several amendments are anticipated, and votes are scheduled for January 29.
As a consensus solution remains elusive, calls are increasing in some quarters for a second referendum. This would not be a straightforward task, since Parliament would first need to approve the question to be put to the people. Moreover, for now, there is not a majority in Parliament to support a second referendum, chiefly because the potential outcome is so uncertain.
In the event of either another general election (if May’s government were to lose a future no confidence vote) or a move toward a second referendum, the UK will have to seek—and the EU 27 must unanimously grant—an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period. Brussels has indicated its willingness to do this, but only if it is clear the UK is headed toward a softer exit.
As of today, with no deal in place, it’s growing more likely that the UK will crash out of the EU, immediately ending preferential access to its largest trading partner and erecting significant new barriers to the movement of goods, services, data, and people. Given the immense economic disruption that would ensue, the U.S. Chamber’s U.S.-UK Business Council has called on both the UK and EU to urgently consider extending the Article 50 negotiating period beyond March 29 to avoid this chaotic and disastrous “no deal” scenario.