Brexit So Far And Beyond
Brexit so far and beyond
Already in place: Article 50 and the EU Withdrawal Act
After the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, the first key step on the road to Brexit was the triggering of Article 50—the EU’s legal provision for countries wishing to leave the EU. The government did this following parliamentary approval in March 2017, setting a two-year countdown to when we will officially leave the EU: on 29 March 2019.
It’s possible that Article 50 could be extended or revoked.
The next key step was for parliament to pass the EU Withdrawal Act, which happened in June 2018. It sets out that, after we exit, the European Union will no longer be the source of any UK laws. That means new EU laws won’t affect the UK, although the government will transfer many existing EU laws (which do affect us) over into UK law.
But the process of exiting is not quite as clean as it might seem. Although we are officially out of the EU from 29 March 2019, the full terms of the Withdrawal Act will probably not apply until further down the line, because UK and EU negotiators don’t think they’ll manage to sort out the whole of our future relationship by next March.
Brexit: What happens now?
MPs rejected Theresa May's Brexit deal on 15 January by a record majority of 230. They returned to the House of Commons on 29 January to debate the government's response.
A majority voted in favour of a non-binding amendment that rejected a no-deal Brexit.
They also voted in favour of an amendment that called for the backstop to be replaced with "alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border" in Ireland, but otherwise supported the prime minister's deal.
The next step is for the prime minister to seek the change MPs have backed. If the EU were to agree to changes and MPs backed the adjusted deal, that would be a great result for the prime minister.
But senior EU politicians have said they will not reopen the legal text of the withdrawal agreement that they negotiated with the UK.
If MPs aren't satisfied with any adjusted deal put before them they could reject it again. Theresa May has also promised that even if she can't get the changes she's after, she would return to the House of Commons in the middle of February and allow MPs a further day of debate. And again at the end of February if there's still no new version of the deal.
And what then? These are some of the options.
1. No deal
If Parliament will not agree to a deal, and nothing else subsequently happens, the default position would be a no-deal Brexit.
The law is already in place which means the UK would leave the EU on 29 March 2019.
And, in any case, EU rules mean the UK would leave then.
The government would probably want to pass some legislation to prepare for no deal but that's not strictly essential.
So although a majority of MPs have indicated they are against no deal, they would need to do something else to prevent it from happening as a matter of course.
2. Major renegotiation
The government could propose to negotiate a completely new Brexit deal.
This wouldn't be a question of carrying out minor tweaks and having a second vote.
Instead, there could be a complete renegotiation that would take some time and would almost certainly require an extension of Article 50 to delay Brexit.
This would require two key steps. First, the UK would have to make a request to the EU for an extension. This could be granted but only if all EU countries agree at a vote of the EU Council.
Second, the government would have to table a statutory instrument to change the definition of "exit day" in the EU Withdrawal Act. MPs would get a chance to vote on this change.
If the EU refused to re-enter negotiations, the government would have to plump for one of the other options instead.
3. Another referendum
The government could instead choose to have another referendum.
As with a renegotiation, this would require an extension to Article 50. It's already too late to hold a referendum before 29 March.
And it can't just happen automatically. The rules for referendums are set out in a law called the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.
There would have to be a new piece of legislation to make a referendum happen and to determine the rules, such as who would be allowed to vote.
It couldn't be rushed through, because there has to be time for the Electoral Commission to consider and advise on the referendum question.
The question is then defined in the legislation.
Once the legislation has been passed, the referendum couldn't happen immediately either. There would have to be a statutory "referendum period" before the vote takes place.
Experts at University College London's Constitution Unit suggest that the minimum time for all of the required steps above is about 22 weeks.
Even if that could be shortened a little, it would still take us well beyond the end of March.
4. Call a general election
Theresa May could decide the best way out of the deadlock would be to hold an early general election - in order to get a political mandate for her deal.
She doesn't have the power just to call an election. But, as in 2017, she could ask MPs to vote for an early election under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
Two-thirds of all MPs would need to support the move. The earliest date for the election would be 25 working days later but it could be after that - the prime minister would choose the precise date.
As with the "renegotiate" and referendum plans, this course of action could also involve a request to the EU to extend Article 50.
5. Another no-confidence vote
Labour could table another motion of no confidence in the government at any time.
Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, UK general elections are only supposed to happen every five years. The next one is due in 2022.
But a vote of no confidence lets MPs vote on whether they want the government to continue. The motion must be worded: "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government."
If a majority of MPs vote for the motion then it starts a 14-day countdown.
If during that time the current government or any other alternative government cannot win a new vote of confidence, then an early general election would be called.
That election cannot happen for at least 25 working days.
The European Court of Justice has ruled that it would be legal for the UK to unilaterally revoke Article 50 to cancel Brexit (without the need for agreement from the other 27 EU countries).
With the government still committed to Brexit, it's very likely that a major event such as a further referendum or change of government would have to happen before such a move.
After Theresa May survived a challenge to her leadership, the Conservative Party's rules mean she won't face another for 12 months.
But she could always decide to resign anyway, if she can't get her deal through and she's not prepared to change course.
That would trigger a Conservative leadership campaign which would result in the appointment of a new prime minister.
She might also come under pressure to resign if MPs pass a "censure motion" - that would be a bit like a no-confidence vote but without the same automatic consequences. Again this could lead to a change in prime minister or even a change in government.
Whoever ended up in charge would still face the same basic range of Brexit options though.