Can Brexit be stopped? How leaving EU could be delayed or cancelled – in theory

Less than a month before we leave the EU, there’s a question on a lot of people’s lips – can Brexit be stopped?

The short answer is yes. It takes only a crucial few decisions to un-chisel the March 29 exit date in stone.

But the long answer is it’s complicated, very difficult – and despite everything, probably won’t happen.

Stopping Brexit altogether is a political choice that would involve reversing the result of the 2016 EU referendum, and both our party leaders say they don’t want to do that.

Giving the public a vote that could stop Brexit seems more likely, but even then, even holding one will be an uphill struggle.

Delaying Brexit seems the most likely option, but that won’t stop us leaving the EU altogether.

So what are the options and what will they achieve? Here’s a quick guide.


1. Cancel Brexit completely

Prime Minister Theresa May can cancel Brexit with a stroke of her pen

If she wants to, Prime Minister Theresa May can cancel Brexit with a stroke of her pen.

The 2016 EU referendum didn’t, in itself, give any legal power for us to leave the EU.

Mrs May had to do that by triggering our notification to leave under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

That started a two-year countdown clock which ends at 11pm on 29 March 2019.

But the UK government can cancel the Article 50 notification at any time before Brexit actually happens.

And courts have ruled that we can do this without asking permission from the rest of the EU.

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LIKELIHOOD: Next to zero. Theresa May has said Brexit will not be cancelled while she remains PM. There’s a slim chance it could happen under a different Prime Minister if the public votes for it.

2. Delay Brexit

The UK can delay the March 29 date – if it gets permission from 27 EU countries

The UK can delay the March 29 date of Brexit – if it gets permission from the other 27 EU countries.

Until late February 2019, Theresa May refused to do this.

But she bowed to pressure from Remain-backing ministers, and agreed to request one if MPs vote for it on March 14.

The vote will only happen if her 585-page Brexit deal with the EU has been rejected, and MPs have also voted to rule out No Deal.

Mrs May suggested it would be an extension by up to three months, to the end of June. However, MPs could overrule her and make it longer.

LIKELIHOOD: Very likely unless Brexiteer Tories and Labour rebels fall in line, and back Theresa May’s deal in early March. Some (though not all) EU chiefs say they’re fine with a delay. However, it’s not clear what a delay will actually achieve, because Theresa May’s been clear Brexit will still happen at the end.


3. A second referendum

A second referendum is a lot more likely than it was before, but still quite distant

If MPs vote for it, the UK can have a second Brexit referendum.

This could either be a re-run of the Leave/Remain vote from 2016, or a choice between Remain and options like Theresa May’s deal or No Deal.

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The government claims it would take around a year to organise a second EU referendum – leaving unanswered questions about how it’d fit in with a delayed Brexit.

And it would not be guaranteed to stop Brexit. Leave voters could vote in large numbers and deliver a second Brexit result.

LIKELIHOOD: Much more likely than in early 2019, after Labour committed to back a second referendum in Parliament. But it’s thought there still aren’t enough MPs behind one for it to happen. Around 25 Labour MPs in Leave seats could vote against holding a referendum.


4. A general election

Not another one!

So, this wouldn’t actually stop Brexit.

But if Labour finally wins a vote of no confidence – or Theresa May decides to go to the country – we’ll get a general election.

That would then open up a labyrinth of new possibilities, some of which could raise the likelihood of Brexit being delayed or stopped.

LIKELIHOOD: Unknown. Theresa May has said she won’t call a general election but she’s fooled us before. And for Labour to win a no confidence vote, the party would need the backing of the DUP (who seem very unlikely) and The Independent Group of MPs (who’ve signalled directly they won’t back a no confidence vote).

5. Brexit… and then go back in later


In theory, Brexit could happen and then we reapply to join the EU like any other country.

But forget just the political heartache – some countries have spent years in the accession process.

This would be a hugely long-winded process. Don’t expect it to bear fruit too soon.



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