An anti-Brexit demonstrator waves a Union flag, also known as a Union Jack, with an European Union (EU) flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Bemused by Brexit? Here’s a Guide to the Endgame

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British Prime Minister Theresa May almost lost her job over the proposed Brexit deal she struck with the European Union. She held on -- and now can’t be challenged from within her Conservative Party for a year -- but is still in search of a pact that will be approved by the divided British Parliament. The clock is ticking to divorce day, with widespread agreement that a no-deal Brexit would be enormously disruptive. Here’s a guide to what comes next, the most perilous part of Brexit.

1. What deal did May strike?

It’s the most important international agreement for Britain since the end of World War II. Negotiated over 17 months, the deal sets out the terms of separation that allow the U.K. to depart the EU on March 29 in an orderly fashion, with a 21-month grace period to give everyone time to adjust. Alongside is a political declaration that specifies that the two sides want close economic and trading ties, though the details will take years to work out. As things stand, the U.K. would leave the EU’s single market, and free movement of people would end. EU citizens in Britain before Brexit would be able to stay, and vice versa.

2. Why are British lawmakers balking?

The main objection is to guarantees May has offered the EU to make sure a new physical border doesn’t emerge between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU. Critics say the pledges -- which constitute what’s known as the "backstop" -- risk binding the U.K. to EU rules forever. They argue that May caved to the EU and betrayed the electorate’s call to regain sovereignty, while treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the country. Though May survived a Conservative Party challenge to her leadership on Dec. 12, there’s still opposition on all sides: pro-Brexit hardliners in her party, other Conservatives who are pro-EU, the Northern Irish party that’s been propping up the government and nearly all of the opposition Labour Party.

3. Will the EU offer May a better deal?

She’s visiting Brussels to try to extract what would probably be nothing more than token concessions. There’s a summit on Dec. 13-14 where EU leaders will hear her case, but they have been pretty clear they don’t want to reopen the negotiation.

Bemused by Brexit? Here’s a Guide to the Endgame

4. So where does that leave things?

That’s murky. In deferring a planned vote in Parliament on Dec. 10, May said that Jan. 21 is the deadline for putting a tweaked deal to a vote. In the interim, she could announce a host of measures for a no-deal Brexit in an attempt to frighten lawmakers into backing her. (Investors are betting that a deal will be done eventually, possibly after an adverse market reaction.) Or the Cabinet could decide to adopt a new approach to Brexit, in an attempt to win a majority for a deal in the House of Commons. That would almost certainly mean trying to keep closer ties with the bloc. Other scenarios: May’s opponents in Labour could push for a general election, but it’s not clear that would succeed. May could call an election. Or lawmakers could try to trigger a re-run of the June 2016 Brexit referendum. For now, there’s not enough support in Parliament for a second referendum, but that could change.

5. What’s a no-deal Brexit?

There’s a chance that if the deal is voted down, Britain would crash out of the bloc on March 29 with no agreement or grace period. That would leave the U.K. with no legal arrangements to smooth trade and other transactions with its neighbors, snarling cross-border commerce and freezing markets. Bottlenecks could bring shortages of everything from food to drugs and manufacturing components. But the no-deal scenario is probably becoming less likely as Parliament is being increasingly assertive in trying to prevent it.

The Reference Shelf

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