For nearly three years, British Prime Minister Theresa May tried and failed to bring Parliament on board with her plan to separate the nation from the European Union. Now, that’s someone else’s problem: On July 23, the Conservative Party elected Boris Johnson as the new leader, putting a “hard Brexit” prime minister in charge of fraught negotiations with the EU and a simmering political crisis within Parliament.
It adds even more uncertainty to a Brexit timetable that’s been delayed several times. Under the EU and Britain’s latest agreement, Brexit takes place on Oct. 31. That gives Britons only a few months to reach a solid consensus about what a post-EU Britain looks like. And if Parliament fails again, it could produce a “no deal” Brexit, a potentially catastrophic scenario for the nation’s economy – but a risk that Mr. Johnson has said he’s willing to take, “do or die.” Here’s what you need to know about how we got here.
In 2016, then prime minister David Cameron rolled the dice on a referendum about whether to secede from the European Union, and Britons unexpectedly voted yes. Mr. Cameron’s Conservative Party, inherited after his resignation by Ms. May, went to war with itself about how to go forward. On one side was Ms. May’s “soft Brexit” camp, which favoured keeping some ties with Europe and, in particular, a compromise to allow freedom of movement between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. On the other side was the “hard Brexit” faction, including her successor Boris Johnson, which wanted a complete break between Britain and the EU single market. Ms. May triggered the mechanism to quit the union, Article 50, and anti-Brexit supporters’ proposals to hold a new referendum haven’t gained ground. So now it’s just a question of when Brexit happens and how. Many believe the worst-case scenario is a “no-deal” Brexit, in which there’s no new trade agreement to replace EU membership: That means gridlock at the border, shortages of food and goods and the flight of corporate headquarters from Britain.
The options Parliament has rejected so far
The May deal, Part I
It takes a year and a half for Ms. May to hammer out the first draft withdrawal agreement with the EU, which is unveiled on Nov. 13, 2018. The deal – a 584-page agreement and a 26-page political declaration – is quickly approved by Brussels, and sets a divorce date of March 29, 2019, but keeps Britain inside the EU single market until the end of 2020. But this deal provokes an angry backlash in Ms. May’s government. The main sticking point is a “backstop” plan to keep Britain in a customs union and avoid the return of a hard Irish border: The Northern Irish-based Democratic Unionist Party, which Ms. May depends on for continued support of her government, opposes the backstop because, while it would leave the Irish border open, it could create impediments for Northern Irish trade with the rest of the U.K. Ms. May survives an exodus of top cabinet ministers and a challenge to her leadership of the Conservative Party, but on Jan. 15 her deal meets a historic defeat: 432 against, 202 in favour, the worst government defeat ever in the House of Commons.
The Brady alternative
MPs vote on an array of seven non-binding amendments to Ms. May’s deal. Most of them are defeated, but two key ones pass. One rejects the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit, in which Britain would leave the union as scheduled without a replacement trade deal. Another – dubbed the “Brady amendment” after the Tory backbencher who introduced it, Graham Brady – gave Ms. May a mandate to go back to the EU and ask for a new deal changing the backstop, which the EU didn’t want to do because they thought the issue had already been settled months earlier. Ms. May seeks Parliament’s support for her negotiating strategy in a non-binding vote on Feb. 14, but she loses 303 to 258. For many Tories, the strategy is no good because she didn’t rule out walking away from talks with the EU and allowing a no-deal Brexit.
The Malthouse compromise
Seeking to find common ground between the hard- and soft-Brexit factions, housing minister Kit Malthouse proposes offering the EU two new options, both of which would extend the departure timeline to December, 2021. Plan A would establish a U.K.-EU free trade deal instead of the backstop; Plan B would be a “managed no-deal Brexit,” which would soften the economic blow of restored trade barriers. One EU official describes the Malthouse compromise as a “bonkers” plan and it doesn’t gain any traction.
The May deal, Part II
Ms. May brings a revised version of her deal back to Parliament on March 12 after a new agreement with the EU that would reduce the risk of Britain being stuck in the backstop if no new trade deal was reached. But it isn’t enough to mollify critics of the backstop, and the motion is defeated 391 to 242. A further decision by the House speaker bars Ms. May from bringing back the deal for a third vote, unless she makes substantial changes first. MPs do agree to send Ms. May back to the EU and ask for more time. Her preferred new date for Brexit is June 30, but the EU settles on a tighter deadline: April 12 if Ms. May can’t get her modified withdrawal agreement approved by MPs, and May 22 if she can.
The eight unacceptable options
On March 25, MPs take unprecedented steps to wrest the Brexit file out of the Prime Minister’s hands, voting 329 to 302 to hold non-binding “indicative votes” to weigh support for alternatives. The eight options include a second Brexit referendum, revoking Brexit, staying in the EU customs union, the Malthouse compromise or a no-deal Brexit. In votes on March 27 and April 1, none of the alternative options find a consensus.
The May deal, Part III
Ahead of the third showdown over her Brexit plan, Ms. May promises to quit as Prime Minister if MPs vote for the withdrawal agreement, hoping this will allay critics. On March 29, MPs vote just on the withdrawal agreement, not the political declaration that would lay out the future U.K.-EU relationship. Had the vote passed, Britain would have won the sought-after extension to May 22. Instead, it fails, throwing Britain’s economic future into more chaos.
Delay, delay, delay
After her third defeat, Ms. May is under a tight deadline: Get an extension from the EU by April 12, or allow a no-deal Brexit to happen on that date. She asks the EU to delay until June 30, but after emergency talks they give her even more time: Oct. 31, with a review of the terms in June. The deal, which British lawmakers quickly approve, still leaves room for an exit before October as long as Parliament agrees on it.
No May by June
On May 21, Ms. May brings MPs a fourth Brexit plan, one that allows MPs to vote on whether a second Brexit referendum should be held. She also promises to give MPs a say in whether Britain should stay in an EU customs agreement, and to harmonize EU and U.K. rules on worker’s rights and the environment. But the hard-Brexit camp meets the new plan with skepticism and renews calls for her to resign. Days later, she does just that, promising to step down as party leader on June 7 and saying “it is now clear to me that it is in the best interests of the country for a new Prime Minister to lead” the Brexit effort. She remains prime minister until a new Conservative leader is chosen, a process due to finish by late July.
No-deal a no-no? House says no
With the Conservative leadership well under way, Labour tries to ensure the next prime minister can’t take Britain out of the union without a deal. A June 12 cross-party motion sets aside a future date to craft legislation that would limit the prime minister’s power to choose a no-deal outcome without Parliament, but the motion fails on June 12.
Boris is boss
Through June and July, the Conservative leadership race turns into a two-man standoff between Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Mr. Johnson is bullish on the prospect of a no-deal Brexit: “We will of course be pushing our plan into action, and getting ready to come out on October 31st, come what may … do or die,” he says in a TalkRadio interview in June. On July 23, Mr. Johnson wins the leadership by 92,153 votes to Mr. Hunt’s 46,656. “We are going to engergize the country. We are going to get Brexit done,” Mr. Johnson said at the event announcing the result.
Globe and Mail reports from Europe
Commentary and analysis
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Paul Waldie, Associated Press and Reuters