How can Britain escape the Brexit impasse?

How can Britain escape the Brexit impasse?

Britain’s increasingly ignominious separation from the European Union saw the government stumble from the resignation of another Brexit Secretary, an unsuccessful vote of no confidence against the prime minister and the government being found in contempt of Parliament. Finally, it delayed the ‘meaningful’ parliamentary vote (amid much confusion) on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. 2019 has proven equally unforgiving to the beleaguered PM , with May’s flagship Withdrawal Bill defeated by 202-432 votes. Precedent has shown that May isn’t seriously willing to compromise, and the risk of a Corbyn government deters the prospect of an election. Mostly likely, the impasse will be brought to an end by parliament taking control, or the holding of another referendum.

On January 15th, May’s Withdrawal Deal was overwhelmingly rejected in Westminster. 118 Conservative MP’s, alongside the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up the minority government, voted against the deal. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s response, tabling a motion of no confidence in the government, was unsuccessful. With her flagship policy flailing, May offered cross party talks to break the impasse.

New year, new Brexit?

The sweeping Parliamentary rejection of May’s deal means three things for Britain’s departure from the bloc: Brexit will either be softened, delayed or may not happen at all. There is little appetite in Parliament for May’s deal, and ‘no deal’ is not appealing to legislators. Only a handful on the fringes of the Conservative Party’s European Research Group seek for a “managed no deal” solution. Hence, talks this week seek to break the deadlock. These talks could resolve in several possible outcomes, the most likely of which are examined below.


May suggested cross-party consensus from senior parliamentarians, an offer far removed from her binary view, “it’s my deal, no deal or no Brexit at all” last month. The opposition leader refused to entertain these discussions, until the government rules out a no deal Brexit. But May has given little ground to opposition parliamentarians, instead offering concessions to Brexiteers in her own party with a time limited offer on the vexed Northern Irish backstop.

Critics claim May is purposefully lingering, running out the clock to corral naysayers into voting for her deal. Finding a solution to satisfy a parliamentary majority remains a tricky task. Alternative suggestions include remaining in the customs union and single market, or seeking a Norway style EFTA arrangement, where the UK enters the European Economic Area. Parliamentary arithmetic suggests a soft Brexit is plausible and could pass.


May has repeatedly argued this betrays the will of the people; Corbyn, who wants a general election instead doesn’t support a second vote. But many MP’s from both parties are in favour. The government informed MP’s it would take a year to organise another vote. Structuring that referendum is problematic. Offering three choices of ‘no deal, May’s deal or no Brexit’ has been suggested, using an alternative vote system to ensure at least one option garners 50%. Proponents say the people deserve to vote on the type of Brexit Britain wants.

General election

Wednesday’s unsuccessful vote of no confidence attempted to force a third general election since 2015. Labour could force the issue, calling a rolling series of confidence motions, picking off wavering Tories. It took six of these before an election was called in 1974. May, entrenched behind her deal, refuses to call one herself. With both parties hampered by infighting over forming a cohesive Brexit policy, this may not solve Westminster’s gridlock.

No deal

Departing without a deal is the greatest political, regulatory and economic risk to the UK, as an intervention by Airbus’s CEO elucidated. On January 8th, MP’s signified their aversion by backing an amendment to the Finance Bill restricting the government’s ability to alter tax laws in case of a no deal. Many MP’s have made avoiding this scenario their priority; nevertheless May refuses to take no deal off the table.

Extend or revoke Article 50

The UK could ask the EU for an extension to facilitate major renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement. Yvette Cooper’s amendment seeks a three month extension. The EU can permit prolonging Article 50 with an unanimous vote of the EU27 at the European Council. However, the Commission has signaled it won’t offer extensions for May to simply kick the can down the road without concrete solutions. Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier stated on January 23 “we need decisions more than we need time actually.” Still, the UK could unilaterally revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.


As things stand, the UK must pass a deal, seek an extension or revoke Article 50 and remain within the bloc by March 29. Otherwise, the UK will arrive at no deal by default. Parliamentary support for a soft Brexit remains feasible, but the government insofar has avoided compromise on a customs union or single market to attain this. May is extremely unlikely to shoehorn her current deal through Parliament, and tinkering with the backstop risks perturbing Brussels. The EU have signed off the Withdrawal Agreement and will only renegotiate the future partnership.

January 29 is the next critical day, with votes on ‘plan B’. An amendment extending the deadline carries cross-party support, holding a realistic possibility of passing if the extension is put at three months rather than nine. Too long an addition will severe backlash. However, Brussels would still need to agree. Another intervention seeks to grant Parliament control over February’s agenda so it, rather than government, can decide on the next course of action.

In upcoming weeks, expect Parliament to attempt to wrestle control of the handling of Brexit from the government. Strong sentiment against ‘no deal’ will see attempts preventing May simply running down the clock towards a cliff-edge Brexit. This process could start as early as Tuesday, if successful, risks of ‘no deal’ will be exponentially reduced.

A second referendum remains plausible, but is more likely to be called further into spring, when both the executive and the legislature have exhausted other attempts at forming a workable deal. It could be utilized as a final attempt to stave off no deal. Contingency plans for no deal are already being ramped up in Britain and across Europebut Parliament is fighting exceptionally hard to mitigate this risk.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

David Grant

David is a political risk analyst with regional specialisation in Europe. His interests include European security, Brexit and European business risk. Previously he has worked for a start-up security consultancy and at the European Union's Representation to the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in International History & Politics from the University of Leeds and an MSc in Defence, Development & Diplomacy from Durham University.