17/12/2018 13:47 GMT

A Second Referendum, And Other Ways To Break The Brexit Deadlock

We are running out of time.

It’s been weeks of high drama around Brexit but the resulting movements have left behind a decidedly un-dynamic situation. We are effectively in political deadlock - May paused her vote on the deal because she realised it wouldn’t pass through parliament, Brussels has confirmed they aren’t willing to budge on the deal, and any likely chance of a change in personnel at the top was quashed last week when May survived the attempt by her own party to oust her.

So what could possibly break the Brexit deadlock? Momentum is growing behind the idea of giving MPs a non-binding free vote on a variety of Brexit options to test which, if any, could get us through this seemingly-impossible impasse. Here are the ideas on the table...

Vote for Theresa May’s deal

Perhaps the most obvious way to break the deadlock would be for MPs to actually vote in favour of the prime minister’s proposal when it is eventually put to the Commons. But May was so convinced the deal wouldn’t pass that she put herself through the humiliation of pulling it the day before. And given over 100 Tory MPs last week voted in favour of ditching Theresa May as party leader - it seems highly unlikely they will change their minds and back it. Her deal - even an amended version - seems dead in the water.

A second referendum

May has long rejected holding another referendum on Brexit. But what once looked like a fringe Remainer pipe dream now appears to have gone mainstream. The cross-party People’s Vote campaign will be delighted that a second referendum - in whatever form - is being discussed by lots of people as possibly the only way to break the impasse in parliament.

A general election

Another way to change the parliamentary arithmetic would be another snap general election. Win a majority, and May could argue the public has endorsed her deal and force her own MPs to get behind it. But would her party even agree to stand on a manifesto that backed it? If Labour won a majority, Jeremy Corbyn would then be free to pursue his own Brexit strategy. But again, only if enough of his MPs supported it. Of course there is no guarantee the voters will not simply return another hung parliament. And we would be back where we started. But even with less time before that looming March deadline for the UK to leave the EU.


A softer route to EU withdrawal, which was proposed by backbencher Nick Boles and backed by some Labour MPs, would see the UK take on temporary membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) and European Free Trade Association (Efta) alongside countries like Norway and Iceland while a future trade deal is negotiated.

Efta membership would allow the UK to remain within a common market area with the EU and continue existing customs arrangements, while pulling out of common agricultural and fishing policies.

It would solve the border problem with Ireland, but critics (and there are many) say it would mean accepting freedom of movement for EU citizens. It’s hard to see how May could get this past the hardliners in her own party, given how she has struggled with the current deal on the table.

No deal

There is probably not a majority in the Commons for a no-deal Brexit. But that doesn’t really matter - as scary as it sounds, it’s a default option. If MPs fail to agree what deal they want, and then get the EU to accept it, the UK will exit the EU without a deal on March 29, 2019.

Unless...We Could Extend Article 50

The UK triggered Article 50 on March 29 2017, which set the clock ticking on a two year countdown to exit day. One way to deal with the deadlock is to delay Brexit while the government and parliament try to hash out what to do. But this kicks the can down the road rather than solving the problem. It also requires the agreement of the EU. And hardline Tory Brexiteers. Which, if you’ve read this far, you’ll know isn’t very likely.

Revoke Article 50

This is the nuclear option, and the one that keeps the dreams of hardline Remainers alive. The UK can also decide just to call the whole thing off, revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU on its present terms. This would likely require a vote in parliament and politically, probably another referendum. Frankly, you should know by know that this would be extremely politically problematic.