Boris Johnson’s mantra, ever since becoming prime minister, has been to “get Brexit done”. Yet the most striking feature of Brexit has been the inability to deliver. Every course of action available to the UK and EU is problematic, hence why the solution to the Brexit dilemma continues to evade even the most determined of politicians.
The various measures that have been considered remain as problematic as ever, despite the latest extension granted by the EU. On all these options, no consensus has emerged. Here’s why.
Option 1: no-deal Brexit
Exit from the EU would be immediate, with no further delays.
The wind would be taken out of the Brexit Party’s sails, strengthening the Conservatives’ position as the party of Brexit.
Parliament has effectively blocked no deal thus far and can be expected to continue to do so.
The economic impact of leaving without a deal is widely forecast to be disastrous.
This would not spell the end of Brexit. The UK would still need to negotiate trade deals with European and global partners (in a much weakened position) and replace EU legislation with domestic legislation. Adjusting to life outside the EU would take years, if not decades.
The abrupt exit from the EU would necessitate a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Option 2: MPs vote for a deal
A deal would enable the UK to leave on terms carefully negotiated with the EU.
A deal voted on by parliament would respect the democratic process, being in accordance with both the referendum outcome and parliamentary democracy.
Some of those who voted for Johnson’s deal at the second reading made it clear that they did so not to support the legislation but to amend it. Major amendments proposed at the subsequent stages of the process could result in a bill that cannot garner a majority from any side, effectively taking the government back to square one.
Even if parliament did manage to pass an amended bill with a majority, there is no guarantee that this bill would then get EU approval.
The current proposal for Northern Ireland has met fierce opposition from the DUP, which says it threatens Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.
Scotland voted to remain and could push for a second independence referendum if taken out of the EU against its will.
The deal only covers the initial stages of Brexit. Negotiations are still needed for the next stages, which (at best) would result in several more years of wrangling, disagreement and uncertainty.
Option 3: election
If a newly elected parliament provides a single party with a majority, the deadlock will be broken and it will be much easier to move forward.
Any party elected with a majority at a general election can then claim to have a strong democratic mandate for their version of Brexit.
Parliament has already voted multiple times against holding an election and although the Liberal Democrats may have found a way out, it’s looking tricky.
The Conservatives are wary of heading into an election without any headway on Brexit, given that past delays have increased support for the Brexit Party.
Labour is even more wary of heading into an election, given that it continues to poll behind the Conservatives.
Many voters don’t want to cast their votes solely on the basis of their view on Brexit. There are many other issues at stake in an election, including all other areas of policy, and feelings about the respective party leaders. Voters might feel forced to choose between a party with whom they agree on Brexit, and a party with whom they agree on other things. This further muddies the waters for anyone hoping for a clear Brexit mandate following the election.
There is a significant risk that an election will not solve anything; there may simply be another hung parliament and another muddled mandate on Brexit.
Option 4: second referendum
The initial referendum was based on limited information about what Brexit would entail. Now that people have a clearer idea of the issues at stake, a confirmatory vote would be appropriate.
Polls indicate that the “will of the people” has shifted, reducing the legitimacy of the previous referendum outcome.
If the public votes again to leave, this puts pressure on parliament to deliver a deal, and silences opposition to Brexit.
If the public votes to remain, the Brexit headache could potentially be resolved swiftly by revoking Article 50.
The wording of a referendum would be extremely contentious. One of the many issues at stake would be how many options to include. The main options would be to remain; to leave with the proposed deal; to leave with no deal. If all three were on the ballot, none would secure an absolute majority of votes. If any one of these options was removed, the outcome would be contested. Some form of preferential voting would probably be necessary.
The country is still deeply divided. Any outcome would likely provide only a slender mandate for the victorious side, while remaining fiercely contested by the losing side.
Many people would still be casting their votes from a position of relative ignorance. Few people have actually read the withdrawal agreement and most voters don’t appreciate that the deal is only the first stage of a protracted negotiation process. There is also the threat of misinformation. Both sides were accused of lying during the 2016 referendum and it would be naïve to assume more scrupulous behaviour this time around.
Option 5: remain
Revoking Article 50 is the fastest way to resolve the Brexit dilemma. Negotiations would cease and the UK can return to thinking about other issues.
The economic damage caused by Brexit (not least by the uncertainty that it has provoked) would be eased.
As neither of the largest political parties would contest an election on a platform of revoking article 50, the only way to achieve a mandate for this would be via a referendum. There is no guarantee that this outcome would gain popular support.
Without a popular mandate, there is insufficient political support to pursue this course of action.
If politicians did decide to revoke article 50 without a clear mandate to do so, this would create a democratic crisis.
All told, the lack of clear ways out of the Brexit impasse means that regardless of what the next few days and weeks bring, Brexit is likely to continue to bring chaos to the political, social and economic fabric for a long time to come.