This is it. The final throw of the dice that could determine the future of the UK for decades. The frightening reality is that no one knows how the week will end.
It’s been likened to a political thriller, or the soap opera with so many insane plot twists it’s impossible to predict what happens next. This week the Brexit show will roll closer to its dramatic finale - but the cliffhanger could be whether it even happens at all.
Will the United Kingdom leave the European Union at the end of this month or won’t it? What sort of divorce deal - if any - will they leave with? And who will be the prime minister?
These are questions that are consuming the UK as the country braces itself for another calamitous week where even experienced political observers cannot predict what shape British politics will be in by Friday.
One senior minister in Theresa May’s Cabinet told The Times even those closest to the prime minister were unsure how the week would unfold, or what her thinking was.
“By the end of the week we could have no deal, no Brexit or no prime minister,” the minister admitted.
The UK is set to leave the EU on March 29 and has yet to strike a deal that would set out its future relationship or lock down a transition period beyond this month.
Depending on what happens this week there will only be days left to stop crashing out of the bloc with no deal.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, so what exactly is going to happen this week?
ANOTHER ‘MEANINGFUL VOTE’
On Wednesday morning (Australia time) British MPs are scheduled to vote for the second time on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Ms May has proposed with the EU. The last time she sought MPs approval in January it was rejected by a staggering 230 votes - the worst defeat in British parliamentary history.
Since then she has been trying to win concessions around the so-called ‘Irish backstop’ which would avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event the two sides could not reach a trade deal by December 2010.
British MPs are concerned they will be trapped in a customs union with the EU without being able to leave unilaterally which meant they could not strike their own trade deals with countries like Australia or the US.
Others, notably the DUP who keep her minority government in power, believe it would treat Northern Ireland in a different way than the rest of the UK. The Northern Irish party won’t tolerate that.
So far it appears Ms May and UK negotiators have not been able to secure significant concessions from the EU which puts her on course for another devastating defeat, with even the most optimistic view being a loss of more than 150 votes.
It emerged Monday senior MPs from her Conservative Party were urging her to delay the vote to save the government another humiliating defeat. They instead want a motion to be debated that would show the EU what sort of Brexit would be acceptable to MPs.
Last month - as she fought to stop a series of senior ministers quitting - Ms May promised MPs if her deal was again rejected they would be able to vote on a motion that ruled out leaving without a deal, and if that passed, a further vote on asking permission from the EU to delay Brexit.
The UK is currently scheduled to leave on March 29 at 11pm. A no deal departure will mean a disorderly exit that could cause an economic shock, something businesses and the government are desperate to avoid.
But there are fears an accidental no deal departure could eventuate if a deal is not struck and time runs out.
BREXIT UNDER THREAT
Ms May has spoken about Brexit itself being under threat if they are forced to delay the departure from March 29 because it would allow Remainers in parliament time to push for a second referendum, or at the very least, a much softer Brexit where the UK stays inside the single market or customs union.
A snap election or even another referendum were once considered most unlikely - now though nothing is out of the question.
Most diplomats and investors say Brexit will define the United Kingdom’s prosperity for generations to come. Brexit could be reversed if politicians reject the government’s exit deal, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said yesterday.
“We have an opportunity now to leave on March 29 or shortly thereafter and it’s important we grasp that opportunity because there is wind in the sails of people trying to stop Brexit,” Mr Hunt told the BBC. “We are in very perilous waters.”
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who campaigned for Brexit in 2016, said that if May lost Tuesday’s vote then it would effectively lose control of Brexit.
All this comes amid news the EU will charge the UK £1 billion a month extra for every delayed month. Several countries reportedly will seek legal and financial conditions to agree to an extension - something that will make pro-Brexit supporters furious.
MAY TOLD ‘QUIT TO SAVE BREXIT’
Ms May survived a no-confidence vote in December which under Conservative Party rules means she cannot be challenged for a year. But she may find her position untenable if her cabinet join forces and tell her it’s time to go.
Several party figures went public at the weekend with the ultimatum the party could give her.
The Sunday Times said they had warned her she would only get her deal through if she quit, leaving the path open for another PM to lead the next set of negotiations on the future trading relationship.
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who voted against the deal in January, told the BBC that a promise to quit “won’t get the vote through”.
“You can change the leader, you can’t change the numbers. We’ve got to focus on the issue here, which is delivering on the Brexit demand of the British people. That means leaving the customs union and leaving the single market.”
But senior MP Nicky Morgan told BBC radio the end for Ms May’s leadership would be near if the deal was again rejected
“Her position is going to be very difficult if the agreement goes down on Tuesday.”
She said if MPs then went on to reject no deal and backed a delay it was “the beginning of the end” for Mrs May’s Brexit policy.
“I think it would be very difficult for the prime minister to stay in office very much longer.”
Political observers say it is impossible to predict the twists that will be sure to come.
EU LEAVES UK MPs TO FIGHT IT OUT
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told AFP on Monday negotiations to break a deadlock on a deal to leave were now between Ms May and parliament.
“We held talks over the weekend and the negotiations now are between the government in London and the parliament in London,” Mr Barnier said as he arrived at EU headquarters in Brussels to discuss Brexit.
Hopes had been high that Ms May would come to Brussels to finalise a deal with the EU on Monday, but that never eventuated.
The pair spoke by phone on Sunday but no immediate face-to-face meetings are planned.
“No further meetings at political level are scheduled, but both sides will remain in close contact this week,” Juncker’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas said.
“We are committed to ratifying this deal before March 29. It is now for the House of Commons to take an important set of decisions this week,” he added.
Mr Barnier said they had offered all they could, including a last-minute proposal that Britain could leave the bloc’s customs union after the split.
But this offer would not include Northern Ireland, which infuriated the British who called it a “rerun of old arguments”.
Northern Ireland being treated differently is not something the UK can accept and is one of MS May’s “red lines”.
The Europeans have also proposed to sign a legally backed “joint interpretative document” of the Irish backstop.
This would reiterate ways Britain could attempt to suspend the backstop if London were to request a suspension of some of its obligations.
But it seems it isn’t enough to convince MPs or even ministers.
A number of wildly different scenarios could play out this week. Already there is speculation the votes Ms May pledged to hold, the meaningful vote, and the delay and no deal votes, could be pulled as a desperate prime minister instead tries to wrangle concessions from the EU at a March 21 summit.
But MPs have warned that could lead to a confidence vote the government could lose - especially if angry Conservatives abstain or vote against the government in an attempt to form a new administration under a new leader.
Should the government lose a confidence vote, a two-week “cooling off” period follows, after which there is another vote. Should it fail to command the confidence of the house for a second time, or no alternative government emerge that is able to do so, then parliament is dissolved and an election is held.
The other possibilities are nearly as dramatic.
- MPs back the deal
If the deal is supported by a majority of MPs then the UK will leave the EU on March 29. very little will change as the transition period begins and the future relationship between the two is mapped out.
-The deal is rejected.
If Ms May’s assurances are to be believed that’s when the no deal and delay votes will be held. But it is unclear how long any delay would be, a few weeks or up to three months is a possibility.
-What’s the point of a delay when the impasse can’t be broken?
Some in the EU favour a longer extension so negotiations can start again from the beginning. Theresa May had a number of “red lines” she wouldn’t concede, such as an end to freedom of movement between the EU and UK.
Some in the pro-Brexit camp also favour a longer extension however their motivation for it is different. They want the talks to resume under a different prime minister. A delay would also allow them to better prepare for crashing out without a deal if no deal cannot be avoided.
What chances are there of the government losing control of the Brexit process?
MPs could force a series of votes that would seek to establish a majority for a preferred deal. that would probably lead to a softer Brexit than what is suggested at present. Labour favours remaining in the customs union -which means no tariffs with the EU - while others favour staying in the single market, like Norway. That would mean continued freedom of movement.
But there is also significant constitutional issues if a series of binding amendments are forced as it would be the parliament seizing control of the agenda away from the government.
Finally, could the UK actually stay in the EU and Brexit be stopped?
Yes. A heavy defeat for Ms May’s Withdrawal Agreement could mean a renewed push by MP for a second referendum. a vote of confidence and general election would both risk Brexit not happening at all.