Confused by the latest developments in the UK’s fraught departure from the European Union? Here’s your no-frills primer to what’s going on in Brexit – and what might happen next.
What should be happening?
Two-and-a-half years and a fraught series of negotiations after the UK voted to leave the EU, the two parties finally managed to sign their two-part divorce deal late last year.
The first part of this is the 858-page withdrawal agreement covering the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British nationals on the continent, the sum Britain must pay the bloc for past commitments, and a mechanism (the “backstop”) to avoid customs and other border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The second part is a much shorter political declaration on the shape they would like their future trading relations to take, which is vaguely worded enough to allow for almost any outcome, from a close Norway-style relationship to a more distant free trade arrangement like the EU has signed with Canada.
In theory, this whole package must now be approved by the British parliament so the necessary legislation can be passed to allow the UK to formally leave the EU as planned at the end of the two-year article 50 exit process on 29 March.
Britain would then enter a 20-month transition period, during which nothing much will change and the future relationship will be negotiated, before finally stepping out into the big, wide world in December 2020.
So why isn’t it?
Essentially because the withdrawal agreement – and particularly the backstop, which will come into force if the detailed terms of the future trading relationship do not manage to avoid that hard Irish border – does not have a majority in parliament.
MPs in favour of Brexit fear it could leave Britain a perpetual Brussels “rule-taker”, potentially trapped in the EU’s regulatory orbit for ever. Those opposed to Brexit say the deal risks leaving the country economically weakened, with no say in EU rule-making, and worse off all round than staying in the EU.
The opposition Labour party rejects the deal, as do a large number of Conservative hardline Brexiters. The Ulster unionists of the Democratic Unionist party, on whom the government relies for its majority, also object, leaving the government facing a crushing defeat in the House of Commons.
For this reason, Theresa May, the prime minister, pulled the Commons vote on the agreement that was planned before Christmas, rescheduling it for 15 January in hopes she could persuade the EU to come up with concessions or guarantees that would win her opponents (or enough of them) over.
And what now?
Good question. The EU hasn’t budged (it can’t, to any great extent: the agreement is legally binding, approved by 27 countries, and will not be re-opened), and it is hard to see what supplementary assurances it could offer that would satisfy the Brexiters.
Parliamentary resistance has not weakened, and the government has been reduced to trying to cut side-deals – in the form of amendments to the deal – with various different interest groups to try and peel off some of the objectors. Few observers think this tactic will work.
In the meantime, the prime minister’s opponents in the Commons are waging a procedural guerilla war, tabling – and winning – amendments aimed at wresting more and more power over the process from the government and giving it to MPs instead, particularly if a no-deal Brexit looks likely.
The problem is that while there is no clear majority for May’s deal, there is no clear majority for anything else either: not for a second referendum, nor a fresh election (Labour’s objective), or no deal (which almost all economist and business groups say would be a catastrophe), or a mooted “Norway-plus”, single-market style deal. And the clock is ticking.
Assuming May is defeated on 15 January, it seems increasingly likely that the government may have to ask the EU27 for an extension to the two-year article 50 deadline to allow it (or more accurately, given the current mood, MPs) to look again at the existing deal, or try to develop an alternative Brexit approach it can agree on.
Brexit, in other words, is far from over yet.