08/08/2019 00:01 BST | Updated 08/08/2019 09:16 BST

Why Britain Is Stumbling Towards A No-Deal Brexit

Experts tell HuffPost UK how years of questionable decisions and confused strategies have left the UK with the default position of leaving without a deal.

Not even Leave campaigners in the 2016 EU referendum suggested it could come to this - but a no-deal Brexit is now a real possibility.

There were promises of taking back control of immigration, laws and money while getting a free trade deal “very rapidly indeed”, according to Boris Johnson himself.

His deputy, Dominic Raab, even described the idea that Britain “would be apocalyptically off the cliff edge” as “silly”.

But with the prime minister now promising to leave the EU in 84 days “do or die” and Brussels refusing to budge in negotiations, it is increasingly becoming the central assumption of not just the government, but the nation. 

So how did we get here?

Experts paint a picture of a series of irreversible decisions and political strategies - from triggering Article 50, failing to unite around a Brexit deal, and an inability to explain to the public the dangers of no deal.

As Johnson enjoys a bounce in the polls, “there’s a bit of a sense that finally people think we’re going to sort this thing out”, Anand Menon, director of the UK In A Changing Europe think-tank, says.

“The nuances haven’t got through, there’s Brexit and not-Brexit in the country at large.

“And what you see is a degree of polarisation now with Leavers wanting no deal, Remainers wanting revocation, but with the people who aren’t engaged it’s the same old debate.”

Theresa May’s early days

Theresa May took office after the referendum and soon made the Vote Leave promises real by pledging to leave the single market and customs union, while maintaining “frictionless” borders and controlling immigration.

Brexiteers until recently still referred misty-eyed to her Lancaster House Brexit strategy speech of January 2017.

But it stored up problems for later when it became clear that the infamous red lines were undeliverable.

“Lancaster House promised the impossible - it was hard Brexit with no economic consequences, what’s not to like?” says Menon.

At the same time, May was insisting that “Brexit means Brexit” and that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

Theresa May sets her Brexit red lines at Lancaster House

The mantra was mocked relentlessly by Remainers but this would have consequences later for those who wanted to either stop Brexit, or at least avoid an extreme version.

Ian Warren, a data expert who provides political consultancy, says: “You take it apart piece by piece, you don’t make it a punchline.

“It’s entirely the wrong approach - you’re getting laughs from your mates but actually you are not communicating the real problem that no deal is better than a bad deal with the audiences you need a year or two years from now.”

Perhaps most significant of all was MPs overwhelmingly backing the triggering of Article 50 on March 29 2017 by a majority of 384, without realising they were setting in motion a train of events which made a no-deal Brexit the legal default for the UK two years later. 

Maddy Thimont Jack, of the Institute for Government, says: “People were telling them at the time but they didn’t really understand that by doing that they were triggering this two-year negotiating period that if a deal wasn’t agreed, no deal would be the legal default.”

Snap election

The EU immediately made clear that the strategy she outlined at Lancaster House was undeliverable.

So weeks later while riding high in the polls, May called a June 2017 snap election to boost her power and dilute the influence of extreme voices on either side of the Brexit debate in her own party.

But instead she lost her majority and was forced into a confidence and supply deal with the DUP, the Northern Irish party which would later emerge as the key opposition to the Irish border backstop, which scuppered her deal.

PA Archive/PA Images
May strikes a confidence and supply deal with the DUP after losing the Tories' majority

Menon says: “If she’d got a majority it would have been different, not least because one can speculate that the backstop might not have become such a big deal.

“The backstop initially was disliked because of regulatory division between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK which was bizarre, because the all-UK backstop was specifically designed to avoid that.

“It was only later in the day that the backstop become unpopular because of vassaldom and all that sort of stuff. She might have done a lot better without the DUP.”


Following the election, the EU took what the government saw as an intransigent approach to negotiations.

Chief negotiator Michel Barnier set out the different types of deal on offer on a now-famous “ladder”, which from Canada to Norway spelt out that the UK would not be getting any special favours despite its size and importance. 

According to Menon, the ladder “never really existed” and the rigid adherence to the four freedoms was “slightly untrue” because the EU had offered Ukraine a “pick’n’mix” approach to forging closer ties.

“They approached it from a process rather than an output point of view,” he says.

“So rather than saying here’s a big neighbour we trade with a lot, we’re very dependent on each other’s security, we need to arrive at a point where we keep continuing to cooperate whether they are in the EU or not, they said okay what do our processes and rules allow us to do.”

No majority

Nevertheless, the first phase of talks was seen as a relative success as May got agreement from the EU to move on to the second phase of negotiations.

But things were beginning to unravel as the key question of the future UK-EU trade relationship came to the fore and May begun to pivot away from Lancaster House to a more business-friendly Brexit approach.

Broadly speaking, it culminated in the big hitting resignations of David Davis and Johnson after she tried to bounce the cabinet into her Chequers plan, which the now-PM said would give Britain the status of an EU “colony”.

PA Archive/PA Images
The cabinet Chequers Brexit summit

May’s lack of a majority became increasingly apparent and the government began to delay key votes on Brexit legislation.

The trade bill was postponed by six months as MPs attempted to amend it to ensure a softer Brexit with the UK inside a customs union with the EU.

Thimont Jack says this approach of avoiding parliament meant difficult decisions were not taken. 

“There could have been more proactive engagement of parliament which might have encouraged a bit more compromise before we got to the point where everyone was so dug into their trenches.

“It’s not as simple as everything went wrong for May from January (this year) onwards.”

The battle for Brexit

The battle for Brexit had begun and it was the Leavers making all the running.

Anti-no deal forces and hard Remainers failed to explain to the people that matter - swing voters - exactly the consequences in a simple, easy-to-digest way, using platforms that will reach them, Warren says.

At the same time, hard Brexiteers from Johnson, to Nigel Farage, to the ERG were pushing simple messages about a “clean Brexit”, how May’s backstop was leading Britain to become a “vassal state” and, of course, that no deal was better than a bad deal.

Messages about job losses, food and medicine shortages and the general chaos of a no-deal Brexit were not getting through because the communication was “elite, top down, trust us we know what we’re talking about, please listen to Radio 4 in the mornings”.

PA Wire/PA Images
Nigel Farage's Brexit Party is demanding a no-deal Brexit

Warren says: “We have been talking about those things and people’s opinions haven’t been changed.

“You’ve waited too long, secondly you’ve used traditional media channels to distribute this message because that’s all you know.”

Warren adds: “Get into the pubs, get into the workplaces, get into wherever you need to, that’s your audience.”

Meanwhile, Labour was opposed to no deal but for long periods of time took a back seat in the hope the party would benefit while the Tories tore themselves apart.

“Throughout that process the argument in the country was being lost because the main opposition party was choosing to vacate its ground,” Warren says.

“The public debate was already happening - the public had to make up the ground themselves because they weren’t being told what was wrong with no deal by anybody.”

May’s denouement

By the time MPs finally got to vote on May’s deal in January, the battle had already been lost and it went down by big majorities three times before she was forced to make way for Johnson.

There was one last attempt to try and unlock the majority for Brexit with a deal as MPs staged a series of so-called ‘indicative votes’ on different options.

But positions had become so entrenched that no one was willing to compromise and in the end not a single option got a majority.

Thimont Jack says: “I think more recently no deal has become more probable because MPs are quite happy to rule things out.

“But once an option has been ruled out, no deal comes back in as a viable alternative and people haven’t been willing to give up their first preference.”

Johnson’s gamble

The government’s central policy is still to leave the EU with a deal on October 31, and many speculate that it is ramping up talk of no deal to try and scare Brussels back to the negotiating table.

But the EU is unlikely to change its mind and ditch the backstop as Johnson wants, according to Menon.

Firstly, it would “just be a bad look”.

However, there are also “good political reasons” for the Brussels machine to show loyalty to Ireland, having acquired a reputation as a “handmaiden to Germany” and ignoring the wishes of small states during the eurozone crisis.

“I also think the member states have made a statement of principle about Ireland and it’s hard to backtrack from that,” he says.

PA Wire/PA Images
Speculation about a snap election has grown after Johnson hired former Vote Leave chief Dominic Cummings to as his Downing Street chief of staff

With MPs determined to stop no deal, the only alternative appears to be a general election.

Menon says: “I don’t know whether his strategy is to talk it up to prove your no deal credentials so you get Brexiteer voters when you call a general election on the basis that parliament has stymied your perfectly legitimate approach to take us out with no deal. I still think that is a likely outcome.”