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'Break the deadlock or face the abyss': 5 ways the Brexit impasse might end

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Image: Parliament Holds Indicative Votes On Brexit
A passerby is silhouetted against the Houses of Parliament in London on Monday. -
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Dan Kitwood
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LONDON — Nick Boles was in a hospital bed recovering from a stem-cell transplant to treat his cancer when he learnedof British Prime Minister Theresa May's plans for a surprise election in April 2017.

It wasn't exactly the best time for the lawmaker from May's ruling Conservatives to start campaigning.

Hairless from his grueling treatment and with the encouragement of local party members and the prime minister's office, Boles went on to secure his seat.

But after his proposal aimed at ending the Brexit stalemate was unable to win enough support in Parliament on Monday night, Boles resigned from the Conservatives.

"I accept I have failed," Boles said with a shaky voice as he announced his decision in the House of Commons. "I have failed chiefly because my party refuses to compromise."

"Nick, don't go. Come on," one of Boles' colleagues pleaded as he left the chamber.

It was an emotional end to an already draining day, which saw lawmakers once again fail to agree on a way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union.

Boles wasn't the only one on the verge of tears Monday night. The impasse Britain is facing at the moment is unprecedented.

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Lawmakers have now voted three times against the divorce deal May negotiated with the E.U. They have also voted against leaving the E.U. without any agreement, various forms of a close relationship with the bloc and revoking the mechanism which triggered the planned withdrawal.

If politicians can't agree, the U.K. will crash out of the E.U. in 10 days without a deal — a scenario most experts believe would shock the economy, and could even threaten supplies of fresh produce and medicine.

Lawmakers could get a final chance to state their preferences on Wednesday.

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Meanwhile, across the Channel, Europe is watching Britain's Brexit chaoswith increasing frustration.

"The House of Commons again votes against all options ... On Wednesday, the U.K. has a last chance to break the deadlock or face the abyss," tweeted Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's top Brexit official.

Here are five different ways Brexit could play out in the coming week.

May wins support for her deal

Lawmakers have had the opportunity to vote three timeson the withdrawal agreement that May painstakingly negotiated with the E.U. Each time, they have said "no thanks."

The nearly 600-page deal includes a divorce bill worth between £35 and £39 billion ($45 billion - $51 billion), as well as the framework for a future relationship and a nearly two-year transition period.

May insists that her deal delivers on the things that matter to the people — control of budgets, immigration policy and laws.

But many lawmakers in her own party feel it keeps the U.K. too closely tied to the E.U. They particularly object to a section known as the Irish backstop — an insurance policy to avoid a physical border being reinstated between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Irish Republic, which is in the E.U.

Despite its repeated rejections, May's plan may not be dead yet. She reportedly wants to bring it back again this week, in the hope of persuading rebel lawmakers within her own party and beyond that, though imperfect, it is better than any alternative.

A close future relationship

With May's deal in disarray, some lawmakers have come up with their own plans to leave the E.U. while maintaining closer ties with the bloc than her plan.

Four non-binding motions were put to lawmakers on Monday night, and the option for a customs union came closest to finding a majority.

It would guarantee a smooth and tariff-free trade in goods, but would limit Britain's capacity to strike its own free trade deals, something Brexit supporters sharply object to.

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A motion for an even closer future relationship, the option touted by Boles, would keep the trading relationship between the U.K. and E.U. relatively similar to the status quo. It would however, hamper the U.K.'s ability to limit immigration from within the bloc, something many Brexit supporters strongly reject.

Any change to May's deal would need to be approved by E.U. leaders.

A disorderly 'no-deal' Brexit

At the moment, the U.K.'s membership of the E.U. is set to end on April 12, whether there's a divorce agreement in place or not.

If Britain leaves without a deal, it would be an abrupt end to a political and cultural relationship spanning more than 40 years.

Yet the inability of Parliament to find a way forward has made this scenario more likely, according to Michel Barnier, the E.U.'s chief Brexit negotiator.

"The U.K. should now indicate the way forward or indicate a plan," Barnier said Tuesday. "More today than ever."

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The government's own analysis and most experts agree that a "no-deal" Brexit would significantly shrink the economy, compromise security and raise prices, while supermarkets have warned of shortages of fresh produce. In preparation, the state-run National Health Service is stockpiling medicine and reportedly even body bags.

However, some of Parliament's more hardline Brexit supporters are actively calling for this cliff-edge scenario. They see these bleak forecasts as scaremongering by an establishment that wants to remain in the E.U.

Another referendum

Support for a second public vote on the terms of Brexit has seen increasing support from both the people and lawmakers. A proposal to hold a confirmatory referendum on any deal and framework for a future relationship got the most votes of any option floated Monday night, but was defeated by 292-280.

Last month, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of London in a protest demanding a second referendum. A parliamentary petition to cancel Brexit altogether has topped 6 million digital signatures.

The E.U. has said that in the event of a second referendum, it would grant a delay to the Brexit date. This would mean that the U.K. would need to elect representatives to the European Parliament in E.U.-wide election this May, something that the prime minister has said she strongly opposes.

A general election

This is the option May's ruling Conservative Party likely dreads. Recent polls show the party either tied or even slightly behind the opposition Labour Party. But a general election could alter the parliamentary arithmetic and open up a path that ends the gridlock.

British Prime Minister Theresa May.
British Prime Minister Theresa May.Tolga Akmen

May's majority is shaky — and shrinking with the resignations of four members of her party in the last two months. With Boles' departure, the party holds only 313 out of 650 seats in Parliament. Her government is propped up by a right-wing Northern Irish party, which has so far withheld its support for her withdrawal agreement.

The prime minister appears cornered, with pro-Brexit Conservatives threatening to topple their own government if May tacks toward a "soft" Brexit, and Conservatives who oppose a "hard" Brexit threatening the same if she opts for the "no-deal" route and the country departs on April 12.

The E.U. has said that in the event of a general election, it would extend the Brexit date.