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Brexit: What happens next? The options if May's deal fails

What next? Credit: PA

With Theresa May’s Brexit deal on life support, widely expected to be voted down in the New Year, and Parliament in deadlock, here are some of the options being discussed in Westminster on what could happen next.

  • Second referendum

Support for a second vote has undoubtedly gained more attention in recent weeks, with ministers Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah quitting the Government to join an already sizable rump of Labour backbench MPs endorsing a so-called People’s Vote.

Jeremy Corbyn is under pressure to join them and make a second vote official Labour policy.

The Labour leader prefers a General Election, but has publicly stated his party would back another referendum if that is rejected.

Three former prime ministers - John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - say a second public ballot is the only way to break the impasse.

But Theresa May is strongly against the idea, and her de-facto deputy David Lidington and chief of staff Gavin Barwell have distanced themselves from reports they have been sounding out MPs about the prospect of putting the EU question back to the people if the PM's deal fails.

Campaigners for a second vote are not yet agreed on what the question would be - a straightforward Remain versus Leave?

A three-way fight between Remain, no deal and Mrs May’s deal?

The Prime Minister's deal versus Remain?

Either way, without Labour frontbench support it's unlikely a second referendum has enough support in Parliament.

Could we all get a second vote? Credit: PA
  • Indicative votes

This is the “flushing out” method some in the Cabinet, including Education Secretary Damian Hinds, are advocating as a way of getting Theresa May’s deal through.

The logic: let Parliament vote on the alternative Brexit options being proposed by some MPs, with the aim of showing there isn’t a majority for any of them, thus galvanizing support for Mrs May’s deal as the only deal left on the table.

These other options include a Norway-style model, arguably the softest form of Brexit, which would see the UK trade in the European Economic Area (EEA), allowing new trade deals to be sought outside the EU.

However, under such a deal, Britain would almost certainly have to keep freedom of movement, which was a major pillar of the Leave campaign.

Then there’s a Canada-style model, advocated by Boris Johnson and David Davis, which envisages a wide-ranging free trade deal with the EU without signing up to wide-ranging EU rules and regulations.

Number 10 argues this deal would not deliver frictionless trade and would not solve the problem of Irish backstop.

Those that support the idea of a series of "indicative votes" believe there is not a majority in Parliament for either Norway or Canada, nor in fact a second referendum.

So before the Christmas break, they want MPs to vote on the alternatives as a process of elimination - leaving Theresa May’s deal, and no deal, as the only options left.

And if there’s a majority in Parliament for one thing, it’s to avoid no deal.

Some MPs believe the 'flushing out' method would show there is no consensus for anything. Credit: PA
  • Managed no deal

This is favoured by a number of Tory Brexiters including European Research Group (ERG) chair Jacob Rees-Mogg.

It's also said to have Cabinet sympathisers in the form of Andrea Leadsom, and Jeremy Hunt has also hinted he could back it.

So what is it?

A middle-ground between Mrs May’s deal and no deal, a so-called "managed no-deal" suggests the UK pays the EU some of the £39 billion divorce bill, perhaps half.

It also suggests that Britain leaves the EU on March 29 without a wide-ranging withdrawal agreement under World Trade Organisation terms, instead with a series of smaller, industry-specific deals, for example to ensure planes still take off and land, and medicines can be imported.

Downing Street though has dismissed this option, arguing the EU has made it clear that it will not discuss no-deal deals until the UK has actually left the EU.

In other words, no deal is exactly what it says on the tin, and it cannot be "managed".

Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg is keen for a 'managed no deal'. Credit: PA
  • Free vote

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox has suggested allowing MPs a free vote on Mrs May’s deal, an idea suggested a few weeks ago by International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt.

The logic here is it could encourage enough Labour MPs - unshackled from their own party whip - to back the deal to get it over the line.

But this would require the Labour leadership to agree to a free vote, and while there are a fair number of Labour MPs representing Leave-voting constituencies who want to see Brexit delivered, there’s currently nowhere near enough of them supportive of the Prime Minister’s proposals, and a free vote is unlikely to change that.

Liam Fox is advocating a free vote Credit: PA
  • A Government of national unity

Conservative backbenchers Nicholas Soames, Nicky Morgan and Nick Boles have all floated the idea of a cross-party approach in order to build consensus around a deal that would be voted through Parliament.

With Theresa May currently unable to win support from the DUP and her Brexit-backing backbenchers, Boles et al would like to see her reach out to opposition leaders to find the best way forward.

If Jeremy Corbyn refuses to play ball, Boles believes the PM should seek out moderate Labour back-benchers to build a deal they can back in the national interest.

This could be popular outside of Westminster, where politicians pulling together for the greater good is undoubtedly more attractive that party point-scoring as the country grapples with the greatest political challenge of our time.

But in practice, it's hard to see Labour MPs helping Mrs May out of the hole she has found/got herself in, and Number 10 has shown little sign in the past two years of reaching across the divide to secure Brexit agreement.