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Brexit chaos: Six ways the messy divorce might pan out

Image: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May shelters from the rain under an
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Daniel Leal-Olivas
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LONDON — In the maelstrom of uncertainty engulfing Britain, Tuesday was supposed to bring some clarity on Brexit.

No such luck. At the 11th hour, Prime Minister Theresa May pulled the plug on one of the most eagerly awaited parliamentary votes since the British public opted to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum.

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Brexit is complex and can seem daunting even to Brits who try to keep up with this stuff. And if the landscape was uncertain before Monday, it's perhaps even more so now.

"I'm just as clueless as everyone else," joked Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London. "You might as well talk to the next person you see in the street."

Here are six potential scenarios that could play out in the weeks ahead.

1. May's negotiated deal wins support

The U.K. currently has a deeply entrenched relationship with the E.U. as one of its 28 member states.

British lawmakers are currently trying to decide what those links will look like after Britain leaves this club on March 29.

The prime minister has negotiated her own deal with the E.U. but most British lawmakers hate it. It was almost certain to be rejected Tuesday in a defeat of humiliating proportions — that's why May pulled the vote.

However, the simplest way to resolve the Brexit conundrum — at least for now — would be if the prime minister found a way to get her deal through the House of Commons.

In its current state, this seems impossible. The parliamentary math is stacked against May, with as many as 100 of her party's 315 lawmakers openly opposing her plan.

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Both pro- and anti-Brexit lawmakers have a list of concerns. Chief among them is what Brexit means for the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Irish Republic, which is a separate country and will remain part of the E.U.

The border is currently more or less invisible and there are no checkpoints.

The riddle is how to create a boundary that checks goods and people crossing the new E.U. border, but avoids risking a return to "The Troubles" — a conflict that blighted Ireland and the U.K. for decades until a peace deal in 1998. Some fear the reinstatement of a physical boundary could rekindle tensions and even spill over into violence.

In a bid to resolve this, May's plan includes something called the "Irish backstop."

This is an insurance policy that would come into force if the U.K. and E.U. can't agree on a solution to this border issue. It would prevent a hard border by tying Northern Ireland to some of the E.U.'s regulations.

However, some are concerned that creating one rule for Northern Ireland and another for the rest of the U.K. — England, Scotland and Wales — potentially risks breaking up the U.K. Scotland voted to remain in the E.U. and its government might ask for a similar arrangement.

Others say the backstop gives the E.U. too much power.

This is what effectively killed May's deal as it stands. Anticipating defeat, she said Monday she would return to Europe to seek "assurances" that this backstop would be never used.

What she hopes to achieve is unclear. E.U. officials say that they will not budge on what they've already offered her, let alone give the type of sweeping changes May would need to convince dozens of lawmakers in her own party to change their position on her proposal.

"I think we're beyond the stage where a little bit of unicorn dust on the political declaration is going to swing it for her," said Menon, who is also director of The U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank.

2. May is toppled by her own colleagues

The prime minister has insisted that her deal is the only game in town. But what if lawmakers in her Conservative Party decide it's time for a new leader?

This requires an arcane process.

Conservative lawmakers must write 48 letters of no-confidence to trigger a leadership contest.

Some have already been sent to the man assigned to collect them, but only he knows exactly how many.

"She's almost certain to face the challenge," said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, a London think tank. "The only consequence of postponing of her Brexit vote is to weaken May's authority several notches further than it already has been."

In the past, choosing a leader has taken around two months, a daunting timeline given the current Brexit due date of March 29.

Any new prime minister would still be left to deal with the looming divorce.

3. Britain heads back to the ballot box

The opposition Labour Party has been deeply critical of the government's efforts. But it has also faced criticism for failing to articulate a coherent alternative.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has remained vague on his position but it's no secret he's a longtime euroskeptic. He has resisted calls to become a leading voice of the anti-Brexit movement, instead maintaining Labour's position that there should be a general election so he can attempt to succeed where May has failed.

His detractors say he has not explained how exactly he would do so.

Gaining power would require persuading a majority of lawmakers to back a no-confidence motion on May's Conservative government.

Theresa May\'s Conservative government could face a challenge from the Jeremy Corbyn\'s opposition Labour Party.
Theresa May\'s Conservative government could face a challenge from the Jeremy Corbyn\'s opposition Labour Party.Pedro Nunes

After chastening losses in a general election last year, May no longer commands an absolute majority in the House of Commons. Instead, she is propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party, a small group from Northern Ireland who have acted as her parliamentary kingmakers.

The Scottish National Party and other smaller groups said they would back a no-confidence motion. But Corbyn would need the Democratic Unionists to turn against the Conservatives, something they've said they won't do. So unless something changes it's hard to see how he can make the arithmetic work.

Either way, a new prime minister or a new government would not be a solution in and of itself: A new leader would still need to solve the Brexit question.

4. May comes up with a new deal

While May's proposal looks dead in the water, most lawmakers still support some form of Brexit.

There may be a majority for a "softer" exit than what the prime minister has suggested, according to Grant at the Centre for European Reform.

Some lawmakers would like something similar to the deal enjoyed by Norway, which is not in the E.U. but has access to its single market, which allows goods, services and people to flow freely.

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"We can go for a much softer Brexit, particularly with the Norway option, which might possibly get through Parliament if the political declaration is changed," Grant said.

Others back another option known as "Canada-plus," emulating the free-trade deal struck between Ottawa and the E.U.

A renegotiated deal would require time, which for lawmakers is growing increasingly short. This risks a ...

5. 'No-deal' Brexit

Once Britain leaves the E.U., its borders will be subject to all sorts of checks and regulations that it currently doesn't need to worry about. If it crashes out of the bloc without a plan, many are warning it could have truly scary consequences for the British people.

This is the default option: If lawmakers in Parliament do not find another solution, Brexit will still happen on March 29.

A "no-deal" Brexit would be "absolutely catastrophic" for Britain and put the country "in a state of emergency," Conservative lawmaker and former attorney general Dominic Grieve told Sky News this summer. "Basic services that we take for granted might not be available."

Officials on all sides have ramped up preparations for what many are predicting will be a nightmare scenario. Goods could become snarled at the border, flights could be disrupted, vital medicines may have difficulty getting into the country and there could be food shortages.

However, as the days tick ominously closer to the March 29 deadline, the prime minister and the Labour Party may both try to use the looming threat of no-deal to persuade lawmakers to back their respective plans.

Whatever happens, lawmakers will most likely do everything possible to avert this. Leading to another potential outcome ...

6. No Brexit at all

Hours before the prime minister canceled her Brexit vote, another pivotal piece of news dropped: The European Court of Justice ruled that Britain can effectively cancel Brexit if it wants to.

The court said the U.K. could do this by withdrawing the divorce clause — called Article 50 — that it triggered in March 2017. Crucially, it wouldn't need to ask the other 27 E.U. member states.

Most British lawmakers don't want to do this, either because they still believe in Brexit, or because they don't want to go against the 2016 referendum decision in which 17.4 million voters backed leaving, compared to 16.1 million who supported the status quo.

However, there are some in Parliament and many members of the public who want a second referendum, which has been branded the "People's Vote."

The thinking behind this is that although people voted to leave the E.U., there was no option to say what the post-Brexit U.K. should look like.

Now that there is a clearer idea of the options available, so campaigners say, it's only right the people be asked whether this is still what they want.

Because there is so little time before Brexit happens, this would likely require an extension of Article 50, which, unlike canceling it altogether, would need the backing of the E.U.