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Theresa May at a press conference at the European Commission. Photo: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images

The U.K. government lost two significant votes this week, as Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement and ruled out a no-deal Brexit. They also rejected some alternative proposals for resolving the crisis.

The big picture: The problem is that members of Parliament fall into four main groups on the Brexit issues, and none commands a majority.

What each group broadly supports:

  1. Leaving the EU without a deal
  2. Leaving the EU under May’s current agreement
  3. A “softer” departure that retains the closest possible trading links with the EU, minimizing damage to Britain’s economy (including the “Norway-plus” and “Common Market 2.0” plans)
  4. Remaining within the EU, especially if that’s the outcome supported by a new referendum (a small minority would simply revoke Britain’s application to leave the EU without putting a vote to the public)

Between the lines: A coalition of groups 3 and 4 could triumph, as a majority of MPs would prefer the kind of customs union or single market–style relationship the U.K. currently enjoys.

  • Group 4 MPs, however, consider a “soft” Brexit ridiculous: It would leave the U.K. bound by EU rules but with no say in them.

What’s happening: Before March 29, May will have one or two more attempts to revive her withdrawal agreement, which has twice been voted down by large majorities. She hopes that the no-deal brigade will crack, convinced that leaving Europe trumps all other causes.

  • If an extended deadline is sought, the pressure would shift to groups 3 and 4, but it’s far from clear they can agree on the fundamental choice: whether to uphold or challenge the sanctity of the 2016 referendum result.
  • There is a narrow chance May could untie the knot herself, perhaps through a proposal from two Labour MPs to subject the withdrawal agreement to a “confirmatory vote”: If approved by the electorate, it would come into effect, perhaps one month after the public vote. If rejected, it would keep the U.K. in the EU.

What to watch: It’s still unclear if the EU will grant an extension — and, if it does, for how long and on what terms. And a second referendum would take months to organize, raising questions around whether the U.K. would participate in European Parliamentary elections later this year.

Be smart: Whatever fate Brexit meets, Britain’s reputation for competent, pragmatic political stability — built up over centuries — is being trashed. It will take years, perhaps decades, to restore.

Peter Kellner is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

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