With Brexit Deadlocked, Britain Stares Over a Cliff

Anti-Brexit protesters outside the Houses of Parliament in London this month. For months, the consuming political narrative has been the fight within the Conservative Party.

LONDON — For all the drama of knife-edge votes in Parliament, the sniping and sabotage, the resignations and political insurrections, Britain is now staring at a hard truth. Its deadline for exiting the European Union is less than nine months away. And there is no workable plan in sight.

The political fight is so noisy, stoked by a partisan British news media, that it is easy to forget what could be coming if no agreement is made: a disorderly divorce, the so-called “cliff-edge” scenario — as in the country could metaphorically fall off one. Trucks stuck at ports. Supermarket shelves emptying out. Planes grounded at airports, and millions of citizens trapped in legal limbo.

This week, in a sign of mounting anxiety, the British government announced plans to issue regular warnings to citizens and businesses — likely to range from how to prevent medicine shortages to what documents would be needed to drive in France — so that everyone can prepare for the chance that a deal will not be struck. A no-deal divorce would be so dire that many politicians quietly believe it will be avoided and common sense will prevail.

The question is how. Parliament is paralyzed. Prime Minister Theresa May is besieged. Her Conservatives are bitterly divided, consumed by infighting, while the opposition Labour Party keeps its head down, hoping to exploit the chaos.

There are factions pushing to hold a second Brexit referendum that might reverse the first — except doing that would provoke a backlash among supporters of withdrawal. There is speculation about a general election to produce a new government with a clear majority — but that didn’t work last June.

There is also talk, ceaselessly, of a leadership challenge to Mrs. May — yet her critics seemingly lack the numbers to be sure of deposing her. This week there was even talk of a national unity government.

Though President Trump seemed to offend almost everyone during his visit to Britain last week, his depiction of a country in “somewhat turmoil” was not completely wrong.

“Basically nobody has the faintest idea what will happen,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a research institute. “The risk is real of political deadlock in Britain with Britain drifting toward the cliff edge.”

For the moment, the European Union also seems to be preparing for chaos. This week, the European Commission, its executive arm, issued an urgent advisory for member countries to prepare for “all outcomes.”

In the worst case, that would mean suddenly reimposing the types of checks that exist at many borders. That could include customs inspections usually meant to decide if tariffs need to be paid and other checks to decide if food and medicine meet the safety standards of the country where the goods are going.

For months, the consuming political narrative has been the fight within the Conservative Party. The Tories are divided between those who want a “hard Brexit,” a clean break from European rules, and those who want to protect the economy and soften the impact of departure. But within these competing camps are factions, which are making it harder to reach any kind of solution.

Given the prospect of economic chaos on both sides of the English Channel, Simon Fraser, a former top career official in Britain’s Foreign Office who is now managing partner at a consultancy, Flint Global, said that “the calculation has to be that it is in the interests of both sides to reach a deal.”

“But sitting here today,” he added, “one can’t yet see how the deal will be done.”

The breakthrough was supposed to have come earlier this month, when Mrs. May summoned her divided cabinet to Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence. There, she presented a white paper — her Chequers plan — that aims to soften the economic impact of Brexit by keeping some close ties to the bloc and maintaining European rules for trade in goods at least. The cabinet approved, and the hard-liners appeared to be routed.

But the hard Brexit camp digested the deal and spat it back out, with several ministers resigning, including Boris Johnson, who quit as foreign secretary. Parliament came close to deadlock.

Mrs. May’s Chequers plan is now steadily being attacked from different sides. On Monday, she caved in to hard-line Brexit enthusiasts and accepted amendments that were designed to make the deal unpalatable to the European side. This, in turn, led to the resignation of one Conservative minister, Guto Bebb.

Then on Tuesday, Mrs. May won a vote against amendments designed to keep Britain closer to the European Union, but only after some questionable parliamentary maneuvers by the government’s chief whip.

Kenneth Clarke, a pro-European Conservative lawmaker and former cabinet minister, told the BBC that Parliament “always goes mad in July” — the season of summer drinks receptions, when plotting traditionally reaches its zenith. But, he added, “I have never seen it go so mad before.”

Ironically, the 2016 Brexit referendum was called by Mrs. May’s predecessor, David Cameron, to end Conservative Party divisions over Europe. That backfired when senior figures, including Mr. Johnson, campaigned to quit the union, promising that Britain could retain the benefits of its economic ties to Europe, strike free trade deals around the world, keep the money it sends to the European Union, and take back control of all immigration policy.

Such pledges were never realistic, particularly in combination, but the idea of breaking free from the European Union ignited an ideological fire within the party, and competing factions of the Conservative Party are still openly fanning the flames.

In theory Mrs. May does not need to negotiate a full trade plan to avoid the cliff edge and enter a transition period in which things would stay the same between the Brexit deadline in March 2019 and the end of December 2020. Britain could use that extra time to sort out the rest.

But to get there she needs a withdrawal agreement, and that is difficult. The Europeans refuse to sign any deal unless it guarantees that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland, which would leave the European Union, and Ireland, which will remain part of it. Mrs. May rejects any agreement that would separate Northern Ireland economically from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Ireland problem, in turn, leads to a broader question about what kind of access a post-Brexit Britain could, or could not, have to Europe’s single market.

This is at the heart of Mrs. May’s Chequers plan, which envisages avoiding a Northern Ireland border and ensuring smooth trade by creating a complex new customs system. But even some of Mrs. May’s admirers concede that this customs plan will probably not fly with the Europeans.

Mr. Grant, the director of the Center for European Reform, thinks that, as the deadlock continues, the European Union may become more flexible. If Mrs. May gets something close to her Chequers plan, she can perhaps persuade hard-liners that they have to accept it or risk the future of the Brexit project with another general election.

Others think that Mrs. May might fail to strike a deal with the European Union but that if no resolution is in sight by January, her Parliament would rise up and force an election to avoid the cliff edge. Perhaps for that, the clock could be stopped in Brexit negotiations.

Mr. Fraser, the former Foreign Office official, thinks it will go to the wire. “My experience of politics and diplomacy is that a deal will only be done when it really has to be done, at which point people often slightly reinvent the parameters,” he said.

But the alternative, according to Mr. Fraser, is that Brexit collapses under the weight of its own contradictions, leaving Britain in ferment.

“What the white paper has shown is evidence in black and white that there is no Brexit that is good for the U.K.,” he said. “We knew already that hard Brexit is economically very damaging. Now we also know that pragmatic Brexit is probably not negotiable, is hugely complex and leaves the country in no man’s land.”

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