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Does Theresa May’s resignation mean UK is heading for no-deal Brexit?

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LONDON — Theresa May announced on Friday that she would stand down both as prime minister and Conservative party leader.

In an emotional speech outside Downing Street, May said that she would quit as leader on Friday June 7, and resign as prime minister once her party had chosen her successor later this summer.

The announcement means that a new leader will soon be in charge of either delivering Britain’s exit from the European Union, or finding an alternative course.

Here’s what May’s resignation and the upcoming contest to replace her means for the the Brexit process.

The clock is still ticking

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Under May’s leadership, the UK moved to delay Brexit twice in order to avoid a disruptive no-deal.

The most recent delay — agreed in April — means that Britain is now not due to leave the EU until the end of October.

However, despite European Council President Donald Tusk urging the UK to “not waste this time,” there has since been no real progress towards a negotiated exit from the EU.

Talks between the government and the opposition Labour party collapsed after five weeks and May has since failed to even present the legislation required to implement Brexit to parliament.

Read more: What happens now Theresa May has resigned?

And this: Watch Theresa May’s tearful resignation speech

The decision to hold a Conservative leadership contest will therefore only delay any potential progress further.

As a result, British business leaders are increasingly concerned that the UK will sleepwalk into a no-deal Brexit, with some firms already starting to make fresh plans to stockpile goods.

Will May’s resignation make a no-deal more likely?

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage
Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images

The simple answer is yes.

That’s because the more time the government spends on finding a new leader, the less time it has to work on a Brexit deal which can command a majority in Parliament and avoid a chaotic and costly no-deal departure.

The government also has to make time for summer recess so MPs can take their annual July break.

With the upcoming results of the European Parliament elections likely to deliver a big victory for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and the Tories predicted to come in fifth place, the pressure from Conservative party members for their new leader to deliver a much harder exit from the EU will be intense.

Most of the frontrunners to replace May have already flirted with the possibility of taking Britain through a no-deal Brexit, meaning the risks of such an outcome will now grow.

Will the new prime minister force through a no-deal Brexit?

Luke Dray/Getty Images

Given that the Conservative party membership is overwhelmingly pro-Brexit — over half wanted to leave without a deal when surveyed in January— the next leader and prime minister will almost certainly be someone who campaigned to Leave, oppose May’s deal, and would be willing to leave the EU without an agreement.

Leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson falls under that category. As do likely contenders such as former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and more recently, the ex-House of Commons speaker Andrea Leadsom.

In theory there is nothing to stop a new Brexiteer prime minister from making a no-deal Brexit their policy and attempting to push it through, particularly with the EU extremely unlikely to budge on the deal currently on the table.

However, whether a new prime minister would really want their introduction to the country to be as somebody pushing through an option that has only minority support in the country, and which would risk severe economic consequences, is another matter altogether.

Could parliament stop a no-deal Brexit?

Anti Brexit campaigners hold banners near Parliament in London, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. British Prime Minister Theresa May was under pressure Wednesday to scrap a planned vote on her tattered Brexit blueprint — and to call an end to her embattled premiership — after her attempt at compromise got the thumbs-down from both her own Conservative Party and opposition lawmakers. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Associated Press

As the Institute For Government think tank pointed out this week, there is currently no definitive legislative means for MPs to stop a no-deal Brexit, should the next prime minister decide to pursue it.

Under Britain’s uncodified political constitution, large amounts of power are concentrated in the office of the prime minister and the opportunities for members of parliament to overturn that, even in a hung parliament such as this one, are limited.

However, a nuclear option is available.

Should the next prime minister go for a no-deal Brexit, a combination of opposition MPs led by the Labour Party and Conservative MPs who oppose no-deal could, in theory, team up to bring down the government via a vote of no confidence.

A significant number of Conservative MPs may well be willing to remove their own party from government. One Conservative ex-government minister told Business Insider this week that they’d take any action necessary to avoid no-deal.

However, one factor that may prevent them from doing so is the fact that it would almost certainly trigger a general election, which could pave the way for a Labour-led government under Jeremy Corbyn.

So the Brexit deadlock will continue indefinitely?

UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Quite possibly.

A change in prime minister may satisfy significant numbers of Conservative party members and MPs in the short term. However, it will do little to change the fundamental problems which prevented May from resolving Brexit.

MPs remain intractably divided over Brexit, with no apparent majority in this parliament for any alternative Brexit plan.

And with the EU adamant that the current withdrawal deal is the only deal in town, it is unlikely that May’s successor would be able to negotiate any substantially different deal.

One possible way to break the impasse would be a new referendum. However, the majority of Conservative MPs and members are vehemently opposed to one, and would likely turn against any new leader who even considered it.

Alternatively the new prime minister could decide to call a general election, particularly if they experience a honeymoon period with the public.

However, with opinion polls currently suggesting an election now would risk a Labour government, there is little appetite among Conservative MPs for an early election, at least until Brexit is resolved.

Ultimately the new leader may decide that they have little choice but to do as May has twice done before – which is make one more trip to Brussels to request yet another delay to Brexit.

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