Brexit: what’s the most likely outcome?

, by Andrew Scott

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Brexit: what's the most likely outcome?
Photo: CC0

By now I imagine most people reading this — particularly those from outside the UK — are utterly bored of Brexit. But don’t worry — it will all be over soon. Probably. On 29 March 2017, PM Theresa May gave the European Council notification of the UK’s intention to leave the European Union, starting the two-year countdown towards departure. That means, according to the government’s intentions, we will leave on 29 March 2019.

But what’s going to happen in the next few months? Well, nobody really knows. But I’ve done a bit of analysis to find out what might happen.

Where are we now?

Last week Theresa May secured cabinet support for the draft withdrawal agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom, witnessing the resignations of several ministers in the process (including Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, who resigned in protest at the deal that he — nominally — negotiated himself).

The agreement itself is a bit like James Joyce’s Ulysses: it’s very long (585 pages) and everyone pretends they’ve read it. Basically, it keeps some things and loses other things and nobody, Brexiteer or Remainer, is particularly happy with it. Again, just like Ulysses.

This could be a problem for May. Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 requires parliamentary consent on the outcome of UK-EU negotiations, and Parliament, for a variety of reasons, aren’t too keen. Currently, the Prime Minister is desperately trying to win over MPs, suggesting last week that the options are “my deal, no deal, or no Brexit”.

She’s broadly right. However, I’d extend this a little. I think there are six possible outcomes, which I’ll outline below. In this article I’ll give the results of my calculations and offer an explanation as to why that’s the case, splitting the process into a series of major decision points. (Those of you who are keen on political science or game theory might be familiar with this kind of thing in George Tsebelis’s work on veto players.)

Decision point 1 — the parliamentary vote on Theresa May’s deal

This is a really tough one for Theresa May. She and a few loyalists will support it, but let’s not forget that there aren’t that many loyalists. The Conservative party don’t have a majority of seats and several of their number are ultra-Brexiteers who will oppose any deal with the EU.

The overwhelming majority of Labour MPs will oppose it: either because they see this as an excellent opportunity to topple the government or because they want a second referendum. Smaller pro-EU parties, namely the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens will oppose the deal too.

The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party had previously agreed to support the government on Brexit votes, but they have signalled their unwillingness to do so due to the agreement providing for regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

All in all, it looks like the government will be defeated on this one, probably by a large margin.

Outcome 1: Theresa May’s withdrawal deal accepted in parliament (10% chance)

Decision point 2 — the government asks to renegotiate the deal

If, as seems likely, the deal is rejected in parliament, we can assume the government will ask the EU to renegotiate. Some Conservative MPs have already suggested that this would be their preferred option, seeing it as an opportunity to loosen future UK-EU ties.

However, several European politicians have signalled their unwillingness to return to negotiations, although politicians, of course, say lots of things that they don’t really mean. Either way, there are two possible outcomes here: a new deal which has to be put in front of the Parliament, or a failure to negotiate a new deal.

Decision point 3(a) — parliament votes on the renegotiated deal

First of all, let’s not expect parliamentary support to be too different from decision point 1 here. Ultra-Brexiteers will still want to sever ties with the EU and Labour MPs will still want a general election or a new referendum.

What could perhaps change things is moderate Brexiters or Remainers being fearful of the economic impacts of a no-deal Brexit and believing this deal really was their last chance. As such, a vote for this deal is a bit more likely. Refusal, however, takes us to decision point 4.

Outcome 2: Renegotiated Brexit deal accepted in parliament (18% chance)

Decision point 3(b) — failure to negotiate a new deal

This is a situation where Theresa May goes back to the EU and fails to get a new deal, either because the EU refuses to negotiate or because they failed to reach an agreement. This would also take us to Decision point 4.

Decision point 4 — parliamentary deadlock

This is where Parliament has proven that there is no majority for any single type of Brexit. There are two options here: either the Parliament could wait it out and crash out of the EU without a deal on 29 March or decide to hand the decision back to the people with a second referendum.

The former is slightly more unlikely: most MPs find the prospect of a no-deal Brexit highly alarming, but we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of the ultra-Brexiteers to block and delay.

A second referendum becomes significantly more likely if there is a Labour government and if the two-year countdown under Article 50 TEU is extended, and significantly less likely if a Conservative other than Theresa May becomes Prime Minister.

Outcome 3: No deal Brexit (22% chance)

Decision point 5 — a second referendum

This is the one that so many people want but, as shown, a lot has to be overcome to achieve it. In order to predict, we first have to consider what options will be on the ballot. Both no-deal Brexit and remaining in the EU would be very likely to feature. The UK-EU deal could be included but its popularity with both Remain voters and Leave voters is so low that its presence would be largely inconsequential.

In a shootout between remaining and leaving it’s probable Remain would win — it lost by a small margin in 2016 and voters in the Leave heartlands of England are now more aware of the consequences of departure, while those in the likes of Scotland and London are generally more pro-Remain than they were before. Then there’s the passage of time: older voters (favour Leave; higher turnout) die and younger voters (favour Remain; lower turnout) turn 18.

However, expectations were confounded previously, and the Brexiteers are effective campaigners, however polarising their approach may be.

Outcome 4: Vote Remain (24% chance)

Outcome 5: Vote Leave (20% chance)

Outcome 6: Vote for deal (3% chance)

Wrapping up and caveats

So, there you have it. There are several possible outcomes and it’s not easy to know what will happen. There are a few obvious flaws in my approach though. For instance, I’ve placed most of the emphasis on the decisions taken on the UK side than the European side. This is largely because the decisions of European actors are somewhat easier to predict, so I could afford to overlook them a bit.

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