If a Brexit deal falls in the British Parliament and no one is around to save it, does Theresa May survive as prime minister?
Of the glut of existential questions facing Britain at this crucial moment, that is perhaps one of the easier ones to answer. If the House of Commons votes down May’s draft Brexit deal, she could well be forced to give up her tortuous turn at the premiership and step down.
But what happens after that? And could something prevent that parliamentary vote happening in the first place?
If Britain’s immediate future were made into a book, it would break records for the possible multiple endings.
Much of the uncertainty is driven by the strong opposition to May’s “soft” EU divorce deal from all political parties, including from many members of her own Conservative Party.
The draft deal includes a withdrawal agreement that sets out the divorce terms, and also includes the outlines of an agreement on the future relationship between the E.U. and the U.K. — still to be fully fleshed out.
Critics have poked holes in several parts of it. There isn’t consensus even on all the ways this could unfold in the coming days.
Here is a look at some of the possible scenarios.
Theresa May and the EU: Full steam ahead
In May’s — and the European Union’s — version, the roadmap is clear.
With discussions on the withdrawal agreement “complete,” May says she plans to spend this week in “intense” negotiations on what the future relationship between the EU and the U.K. looks like.
Leaders of the European council are then set to meet on Sunday to vote on the entire package.
“I am confident that we can strike a deal at the council that I can take back to the House of Commons,” May said Monday.
May has given British lawmakers an ultimatum: vote for her deal or face chaos — perhaps even a government led by Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
There is a chance that ultimatum is enough to persuade nervous MPs to support the agreement on the table. Britain would then exit the EU on March 29, as planned.
But there are politicians of all stripes on Britain’s fractious political landscape who have other ideas — starting with members of May’s own Conservative Party.
Tories hold a no-confidence vote
To scuttle a deal they don’t like, more than a few Tories want to topple May as leader.
The Sun reports that 42 MPs have submitted letters to a party committee demanding a leadership confidence vote. The rules say 48 MPs have to send in letters before the vote is held.
So far, they are six letters shy. If they do, and they challenge May but she retains her leadership, she continues on her path as planned towards a vote in the Commons.
If she loses a leadership vote, both she and her deal are finished.
“What it will do is mean there is a delay to those negotiations and that’s a risk that Brexit gets delayed or frustrated,” she told Sky News on Sunday.
“This isn’t about me. This is about the national interest. The next seven days are critical.”
Removing May “will send shockwaves through the entire country,” says Joe Twyman, director of Deltapoll UK, which has done extensive polling on the Brexit pulse.
“The panic will inevitably set in and then the question will be: ‘What happens now, with only a few weeks remaining — can anything be done?’ ”
The answer right now is unclear.
What if the House of Commons votes and rejects the deal?
If May is unchallenged by her party or if she wins a no-confidence vote, the deal is likely to go to the House of Commons for a vote as she planned.
Large elements of the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Democratic Unionist Party — which is propping up May’s government — are opposed to the deal as it stands. It’s highly unlikely to pass without changes.
If it’s defeated, May then has three weeks to make more changes to the deal. There are no guarantees the EU would be sympathetic to requests for changes.
If a new deal fails, May’s government could also face a no-confidence vote in Parliament, and if it loses that, it could mean a snap election.
That brings on a whole slew of other possible Brexit outcomes.
Can Brexit be delayed?
The date can be changed if both sides agree. It may be necessary especially if a general election is called — but it could be done now if the prime minister chooses.
The current date for Brexit is March 29, 2019. If a general election is called, that leaves little room for a new government to be formed and for making any tweaks to the deal necessary for it to win parliamentary and EU approval.
Brexit but with no deal
Both the EU and the U.K. agree this is the worst of all possible options because it risks chaos — so all efforts now are on trying to avoid it.
Still, both sides have put in contingency plans in the event Britain crashes out of the EU, although they have not yet triggered full-scale preparation.
The existing deal isn’t perfect, John Allen, head of the Confederation of British Industry, said Monday in a speech ahead of May’s remarks pitching it to their members.
But it prevents “the nightmare scenario of a no-deal departure, which would be a wrecking ball for our economy.”
A new referendum
A sizable number of MPs and a growing national movement have been pushing for a new vote.
They believe British people should have a final say on whether to leave the EU now that they have more complete information on what it will look like.
May has been adamant that this isn’t an option because the people have already spoken and the will of the majority must be respected.
Others have warned a new vote risks instability and a loss of faith in the democratic process.
A referendum may be an option if the country finds itself with a new government and nowhere to go in negotiations with the EU.
Some believe the developments of the past week make a referendum more plausible.
“It seems to me that it is more likely given the weakness of Theresa May’s position,” Tom Watson, deputy Labour Party leader, told The House, a political magazine.
“She leads a government without a majority. It now looks like she leads a cabinet without a majority as well.”
It’s also an option for May herself if she loses a vote in Parliament.
This was raised by the prime minister as a possible consequence of rejecting the existing deal, but it is unlikely unless a new referendum makes it an option.
It could be that Brexit is delayed for a long time as Britain gets its political house in order, but without a new vote the procedure that has been triggered cannot be undone.
Most likely outcome: More compromise
Britain is on a cliff’s edge and the situation defies prediction.
But could there be room for the EU and the U.K. to make slight changes to make the deal palatable to enough U.K. MPs to pass it?
May has said negotiations on the withdrawal deal are over and EU ministers insisted again Monday that the deal is set.
“There have been long months of intensive and difficult negotiations,” said Austrian EU minister Gernot Blumel.
“I believe this is the best possible compromise and I hope it will now receive consent on both sides.”
However, there are a number of Brexit ministers who are reportedly trying to persuade May to make tweaks to the deal to get it through Parliament.
This may be one way to guarantee the deal sails through, says Twyman.
He suspects May “will get the deal through Parliament perhaps with one or two slight amendments,” when people “realize that actually time has run out and there is no better deal on the table.”
“It’s extraordinarily difficult to know what will happen.”