Updated: Feb 9, 2019
How will Brexit end? When will Brexit end?
These are not easy questions to answer. Any analysis of Brexit quickly runs up against many different uncertainties. No country has ever left before - so there is no precedent to follow. The UK's political system is not used to dealing with sudden changes to the constitution. There is almost no agreement between or within political parties, commentators or the public about what will happen, when and how. What is for certain though is that Brexit is reaching its end stage.
We can deduce a few key points and predict a few key moments that will be happening over the next few months. Before that, a brief reminder of what we do know, and what 'Brexit' actually means.
What's actually happening
The UK narrowly voted to leave the EU in June 2016. It was later in March 2017 that Prime Minister Theresa May officially notified the EU of the UK's intention to leave by enacting Article 50. This set in motion a two-year process for disentangling the UK from the EU. This has been the main business of the negotiations between the EU and the UK; the so-called 'divorce' arrangements. Once agreed the result will form the Withdrawal Agreement, which is necessary for the UK to leave in an orderly manner. There have been 3 main stumbling blocks - the fate of EU citizens (UK in EU, and EU in UK), the sum owed to the EU by the UK at the withdrawal date and the vexed question of the Irish border. The Withdrawal Agreement must be wrapped up by 'Brexit Day' - the 29th March 2019.
Much of the commentary from the UK media, and from politicians, has been on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. There is no chance at all that the details of any future relationship will be finalised by the end of March 2019. For this reason the government has persuaded the EU to agree to a 'transition period' of around 2 years, in order to finalise the details. In effect the UK will officially leave the EU on the 29th March but continue to be a member in practice, until the end of the transition period.
When the Withdrawal Agreement is finalised, there will be an accompanying 'political statement' (officially called the Framework for Future Agreement) which will set out in very vague terms what the future relationship might look like. It's worth noting that if there is no agreement on the terms of withdrawal, then the UK will just get booted out - no political statement, no transition period - just utter chaos. That's the 'no deal' Brexit nearly everyone is very keen to avoid.
So - is that it? No more politics, just the UK government negotiating and either getting a deal or not?
In short - no. As the Brexit end game approaches and the country stares down the consequences of having voted leave in 2016, there is the very real possibility of significant changes. Perhaps even an end to Brexit itself.
There are several very big obstacles that the government have to get over in order to actually secure the exit from the EU. All of these are related to the requirement that there is a 'meaningful vote' on the deal brought back from the Brussels by the government.
Parliament will return to centre stage over the next few months, having taken an uncharacteristic back seat for much of the Brexit process. Any international agreement - including a Brexit deal - must be ratified by parliament. Without parliamentary approval for a deal the government would lack the necessary legal authority to carry out any of the provisions contained within the Withdrawal Agreement. So parliament - MPs and the Lords - will have a very real part to play.
It all gets very complicated at this point because there is no agreed procedure to follow, because the UK has never done this before. What we do know is that the motion put before parliament by the government will be 'substantive' and therefore amendable. This means that parliament will be able to argue over some aspects of the final product of the government's negotiations.
The problems for the government will come in several guises. The first is hurdle a group of Conservative Party rebels - MPs from Theresa May's own party. Some of these Brexit-extremists are very unlikely to happy with the deal brought back by their Prime Minister, especially the idea of having to stick to EU laws during the transitional phase, and that the 'backstop' agreement on the Irish border will likely not have an end date. The next group to consider are MPs from the DUP. The Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland are in a loose coalition with the Conservatives after May's failure to win an outright majority at the last general election. They are adamant that there must not be a border of any sort - customs or immigration - between Northern Ireland and the mainland UK. The DUP's raison d'etre is to keep Northern Ireland within the union (the United Kingdown), so there is every chance they could bring the government down if there is the possibility of fresh borders being erected. This has a high degree of likelihood, because the EU is determined not to have a border appear on the island of Ireland (between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) and logically a border has to appear somewhere (otherwise the UK would essentially still be in the EU).
The Labour Party - except a few perennial Labour Brexiteers - will vote against the deal provided they stick to their impossible-to-meet 6 tests. As it will be hard to just vote down the result of the negotiations the interesting shift would come if the Labour Party throw in their lot with People's Vote advocates. This has the potential to unite MPs from across the house - although the numbers mean this is still a long shot.
Why parliament matters
During the protracted and tortuous process of Brexit there have been two key constitutional moments. Both of these have asserted the continued sovereignty of parliament - in other words that it is MPs in the House of Commons who ultimately get to make the big decisions. The first of these was the verdict of the Gina Miller case, which forced the government to ask parliament to trigger article 50. When the government posed that particular question parliament obliged and passed the legislation that started the ball rolling on leaving the EU.
The second way in which the governmemnt has been forced to ask parliament is to approve its negotiated Withdrawl Agreement in the 'meaningful vote'. This upcoming decision is far, far less likely to go the government's way.
This vote is vitally importnat because parliament will be asked to give the lie to the idea that the government had a mandate to negotiate for the British people a particular kind of Brexit. If the exact version of leaving that May presents to parliament isn't to its liking then the whole house of cards will come crashing down. What happens then is anyone's guess.