John Downing: 'After years of Brexit bluster there are still five possible outcomes - and we're none the wiser on which we'll get'
A soldier and an actress were the only ones sharing a compartment on the trans-Siberian railway in the old steam train era. After three days, she said: "Much snow!" Three days later, he said: "So cold!" Three days after that, she said: "Enough of this love talk - get your clothes off!"
Remind you of anything? Well, unlikely though it might seem at first reading, it is rather like the last two years and nine months of Brexit.
For the longest time we had nothing at all bar jingoistic rhetoric in London and puzzled frustration on mainland Europe. Then over the last two months we have had meaningful votes, indicative votes and ridiculous votes, punctuated by a dramatic late-night EU leaders' summit in Brussels.
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It all amounts to a series of mad and belated bumbling moves towards some form of conclusion. We are close to an outcome here after vastly more verbosity than our railway carriage pals cited above.
The UK MPs go at it yet again today in London, under the shadow of another EU leaders' summit in 10 days' time, ahead of a no-deal deadline of Friday week, April 12. Time is running is out and so are options - the scarcity of both stoking up the need for clear decisions.
Here's a summary of outcomes, which this writer has tried to rank in order of those likely to happen.
No deal crash-out Brexit on April 12:
Few, bar a small segment of UK Brexit radicals, want this awful prospect, which definitely includes a hard Irish Border.
It was rightly trounced by 260 votes in the House of Commons last Wednesday. All EU leaders - especially Taoiseach Leo Varadkar - are against the idea.
It would lead to an inevitable hard Border on this island as that imaginative solution, the backstop, would have to be abandoned. So too would all sort of phase-in transitions, posing calamity for many export businesses and much port and airport chaos. In sum, a horror story.
But, as things are lined up right now, that is the programmed outcome, and it was only averted from the original deadline of last Friday, March 29, by some can-kicking.
Last Friday the EU Commission warned it was the most likely result. And French President Emmanuel Macron repeated his warning that, in the absence of agreement from London, it was better to make the harsh calls sooner rather than later.
There is a limit to sticking-plaster fixes and just wishing it away will not be enough to stop it happening. Everything about the next 10 days will be about trying to stop this kind of outcome.
Brexit via Theresa May's UK-EU divorce deal:
Harder to slay than Dracula, this one just might sneak under the wire for a fourth UK parliament vote, which - surreal though it seems - might even fluke its way over the line.
Beaten by 230 votes on January 15, by 147 votes on March 12, and 58 votes last Wednesday, the PM is determined to drag it back in again. This time she needs to "convert" at least 30 of her own Brexiteer MPs by scaring them that the project faces a very long delay which could ultimately bury it definitively.
There is the considerable obstacle of opposition by the parliament speaker, John Bercow - him of "ooorder... oorder" fame - who reasonably argues that re-running the same thing four times makes a mockery of Westminster.
But others point out that we have long ago torn up the precedent book on this issue. Key Brexiteers, notably Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab, have turned 180 degrees despite their vitriolic rhetoric. It says everything about this nutso carry-on that we cite it at all, much less that we cannot rule it out.
Delay and softening:
This really arises because of a series of "indicative votes" last Wednesday night at Westminster. It amounted to a belated attempt to hold a debate which should have happened long before the two-year Brexit process was triggered on March 29, 2017.
Eight propositions were all rejected in this long-winded process. But there were two other interesting outcomes, besides the hefty rejection of a no-deal outcome.
One was a very narrow rejection, just eight votes, of a proposition that the UK stays in the EU customs union after Brexit. There were 100 abstentions, including the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs, and such an outcome would be hugely welcomed by Ireland as it would end the need for any backstop.
The second was the proposition for a second Brexit referendum, which lost by just 27 votes. This complemented a growing movement to re-run the 2016 referendum.
There are, however, a number of important caveats here. First is that Theresa May, embattled and lame-duck and all as she is, opposes these ideas, which go against her 2017 general election promises.
More importantly, she is under no legal obligation to follow these parliamentary "indications".
Finally, the whole idea of a longer delay on Brexit requires all 27 remaining EU member states to agree.
The UK will have to specifically seek another extension and explain how it intends to use it to drive an early conclusion. Some, like France, will take convincing. Others, like Germany, will be trying to find ways to help delay along.
Ireland will be among those backing delay - an early crash-out means a hard Border with the only discussion being about where and how checks will be made.
Another vote via a Brexit-themed election or a second referendum:
In law, the UK is not due to have another general election until June 8, 2022.
But the continued parliamentary gridlock suggests the status quo cannot continue and a general election may be the only remedy. Outcomes would be very uncertain - many surveys incredibly show May's Conservatives still ahead and there is more than a suggestion of another hung-parliament.
The referendum outcome in June 2016 was near enough to half-and-half, with 52pc backing Leave and 48pc opting for Remain. Current surveys suggest a direct reverse of that result - but it all remains very close and it's hard to underestimate the potential for a Leave backlash in any re-run.
Revoking the Article 50 Leave process:
Every now and again, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar reminds the British that they can always do this to avoid a no-deal crash-out. Pro-EU MPs in Westminster also advocate this as better in extremis than no deal. But it is the least likely outcome here.
Reverting to our railway carriage melodrama and analogy, we can definitely say, the "love talk" has ended. But we are some distance from a conclusion.