Brexit – the more things change, the more they stay the same

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The Prime Minister’s announcement last week that she will resign as leader of the Conservative Party on 7 June means the United Kingdom will have a new Prime Minister at some point over the summer.

This blog looks at the Brexit options facing a new Prime Minister and considers how each option might play out.

So where does the PM’s resignation leave Brexit?

The Prime Minister’s resignation, along with the European Parliament election results in the UK, (discussed in our other blog published today) may mean the politics of the Brexit debate have changed.  However, ultimately the choices open to the next Prime Minister will be the same as for Theresa May.

The next Prime Minister will continue to have four clear options on Brexit:

  • Leave with no-deal.
  • Secure parliamentary agreement to the current, or a similar version of, the Withdrawal Agreement and leave with a deal.
  • Seek the view of the electorate through either a referendum or a general election to try to solve the parliamentary impasse.
  • Revoke Article 50 and keep the UK in the EU.


Whilst the leaving date might have changed on three occasions, the current default position is that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October.  A new Prime Minister may choose to pursue this approach if a Withdrawal Agreement acceptable to Parliament cannot be negotiated.  Parliament sought to prevent a no-deal Brexit occurring on 12 April, however, Maddy Thimont Jack from the Institute for Government has argued that a new prime minister intent on no-deal Brexit can’t be stopped by MPs.  Whilst Parliament could seek to stop a no-deal Brexit, a determined Prime Minister would certainly be difficult to stop without Parliament voting to bring down the government and forcing an election.

The Withdrawal Agreement

The new Prime Minister may seek to agree changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.  However, the European Council’s decision on 11 April to further extend the withdrawal date to the end of October, included at paragraph 12, a statement that:

“This extension excludes any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement.   Any unilateral commitment, statement or other act by the United Kingdom should be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement and must not hamper its implementation.”

Paragraph 12 also stated that:

“Such an extension cannot be used to start negotiations on the future relationship.”

The UK Government signed up to these statements as part of the agreement to secure an extension to the withdrawal date.  Whilst a new Prime Minister might argue that his or her new government should not be bound by such a commitment from its predecessor government, it is unlikely the EU27 will see it that way.

A further issue with seeking changes to the Withdrawal Agreement is the question of what changes would be acceptable to the EU.  As I discussed in my blog on 16 January 2019 in the wake of the first meaningful vote defeat, the EU identified three priorities for the Withdrawal Agreement and these red lines haven’t changed throughout the process:

  • that a Withdrawal Agreement must address the three key issues of citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Northern Ireland and Ireland border
  • that in negotiating the future relationship, the EU’s four freedoms (goods, services, capital and labour) are indivisible.”

It is possible that a new Prime Minister might attempt to seek changes to the Irish backstop.  Given this would represent a fundamental change to the Withdrawal Agreement it seems unlikely that the EU27 would acquiesce to this. However, a new Prime Minister might calculate that with the threat of a no-deal Brexit firmly on the table, the EU’s unified approach may begin to splinter.

Changes to the Political Declaration

A further option for a new Prime Minister would be to seek more detail in the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship.  However, any new approach from the UK Government will require to overcome the obstacle that the current Prime Minister hasn’t managed to do – secure the agreement of the House of Commons as to what the future relationship should look like.  In addition, as with the Withdrawal Agreement, the next Prime Minister would need to consider the EU’s negotiating red lines on freedom of movement.  As I wrote in January:

“To achieve a different deal, either the EU or the UK Government will need to modify its red lines.  The UK Government’s red lines have focused on ending freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union in the UK.  Without movement from either side, it is difficult to see how a different deal is possible which would be acceptable to the House of Commons.”

A referendum or a general election?

Given Theresa May’s experience in trying to secure parliamentary support for her Withdrawal Agreement and the current composition of the UK Parliament, avoiding a no-deal Brexit is likely to require a change in approach. It is likely it will either require compromise amongst members of the House of Commons enabling the Withdrawal Agreement to be passed, or it may be that seeking the views of the electorate is necessary.  This could be in the form of a second referendum or a general election.

In the event of a second referendum, a further debate would take place about the options to be put to the electorate and in particular whether no-deal and/or remain should be included on the ballot paper.

A new general election risks the possibility of electing a parliament which is just as divided as the current one.

Revoke Article 50?

A final option which remains open to the next Prime Minister would be to seek to revoke Article 50 (without the endorsement of a referendum) and for the UK to remain in the EU.  At this stage, this seems the most unlikely course of action.  However, if the UK is faced at the end of October with a no-deal Brexit, a new Prime Minister might see revocation as an acceptable alternative.


Theresa May’s successor will face exactly the same obstacles in trying to find a suitable Brexit outcome as she has faced.  Whilst the Prime Minister will change over the summer, the challenge facing the UK in terms of decisions about Brexit will not.

Iain McIver, SPICe Research