Talks, Votes, Elections and Referendums: Where Next for Brexit

(Bloomberg) -- Britain’s overwrought members of Parliament have been sent home for 11 days, to rest and reflect on how to get the country out of the Brexit deadlock. As they ponder the future of the divorce talks, which now look like dragging on until the end of October, these are the scenarios they will be weighing.

Cross-Party Talks

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has been holding private talks with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition Labour Party since that start of April, in the hope of finding a Brexit option that both parties can support.

In theory, there’s a lot of common ground in terms of a desired outcome, but there are strong political incentives for Corbyn not to rescue May and give up his ability to criticize her Brexit policy. Likewise many Conservatives are outraged that May is talking to him at all, and she has little room to give ground. On the other hand, neither party wants to be the unreasonable one that walks away.

Indicative Votes

May’s stated strategy, if the cross-party talks are inconclusive, is to move to a series of votes on different Brexit options. The structure of these will make a big difference to their prospects of success, as will the extent to which the parties try to influence the outcome.

The idea of such votes, when they were first floated in Cabinet last year, was not to find a new solution so much as to demonstrate the unpopularity of alternatives to May’s deal. The problem is that even if they achieve this, MPs are unlikely to feel obliged to follow through and vote for the deal that they’ve rejected three times already. They could well reveal that there’s no outcome that MPs support – that’s what the previous rounds of indicative votes showed.

Local Elections: May 2

This is one date that can’t be avoided. Nearly 9,000 local government seats in England and Northern Ireland are up for election. These council elections are supposed to be about locally controlled services, such as refuse collection, but are often used to register protest at national issues.

To further complicate matters, they happen in different places each year. More than half of this year’s seats are currently held by the Conservatives, so even in a calm year, the party would struggle to hold them all. A bad night for the party will inevitably spur calls for May to quit.

European Elections: May 23

The fight that May didn’t want to have, these elections for the European Parliament are likely to generate far more interest than they usually manage in the U.K. Both supporters and opponents of Brexit will use them as a proxy referendum.

That could see the U.K.’s main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, squeezed. The Tories will be challenged by Nigel Farage’s old outfit, the U.K. Independence Party, and his new one, the Brexit Party. Labour meanwhile will be accused of being too supportive of Brexit by the Liberal Democrats and Change U.K., the new pro-EU party formed by Labour and Tory defectors.

After the vote, both pro- and anti-Brexit campaigners will seek to argue that the result shows the nation is behind them. Meanwhile the Labour and Conservative leaders will be urged to adopt harder stances for or against the divorce from the EU.

New Prime Minister?

May has said that she’ll go once Brexit is delivered. She could struggle to last that long though. Cabinet members openly undermine her, the government’s central policy is in chaos, and Parliament no longer trusts her. Many see replacing her as essential to breaking the Brexit deadlock.

But the paradox of May is that, although she can’t get anything through Parliament, it’s hard to see any successor getting anything through either. They would either continue to pursue her deal, for which there is no support, offer a softer Brexit, which risks outraging Conservatives without winning Labour votes, or go for a harder Brexit, losing those Tories who want a close relationship with the EU.

General Election?

If the problem isn’t the prime minister, maybe the problem is Parliament. Tories would be reluctant to let May fight an election for them, but it’s possible a new leader might fancy their chances at getting a public mandate for their position.

One possible outcome would be a Conservative majority, which might then be able to deliver Brexit. But recent months have surely dented the public’s confidence in the Conservatives, who have now been in office for nine years. If they lost only three seats, they’d be unable to form a government. That would open the way to Prime Minister Corbyn.

Second Referendum?

If a general election doesn’t resolve the problem, then perhaps the question should be sent back to the people to answer in another referendum. The likeliest route to a plebiscite is under a Labour government.

Although Corbyn only supports the idea of a referendum on a Conservative Brexit, he could well find himself forced to accept one as Labour policy in an election. Even if he didn’t, a majority of his MPs want one, as would any of the parties he’d be likely to form a coalition with.

But there is another route to a referendum: It’s the one thing May could offer Labour MPs that would definitely make them pass her deal. The only problem is how her own side would react.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.