From the vantage point of a news helicopter, the hundreds of thousands of people who lined the streets of Central London on March 23 looked like a colony of ants. The thick column stretched from Hyde Park in the west past the Ritz Hotel before spilling out in front of the Houses of Parliament. Broadcast on loudspeakers and carried aloft on placards came the marchers’ demand: “Put it to the people.”
What else could “it” be but Brexit? Nearly three years after the June 2016 referendum in which 52% of voters elected to leave the European Union, the country is both divided and paralyzed by the decision. And on March 27, after two defeats from lawmakers who refused to ratify the exit deal she negotiated with the E.U., Prime Minister Theresa May made one last attempt to end that paralysis by promising to resign if Parliament would just push her deal over the line.
As the original March 29 deadline for Britain’s departure approached, patience wore thin on all sides. An online petition calling for Brexit to be canceled altogether drew more than 5.8 million signatures, after causing the government’s official petitions website to crash at least twice. At the same time as the march in London, roughly 100 miles north, Brexit supporters gathered to hear Nigel Farage, a figurehead of the movement to leave the E.U., criticize May’s “Brexit betrayal.” Although a much smaller crowd, the 200 or so marchers claimed to represent the 17.4 million who voted for Brexit.
May staked her reputation on delivering Brexit, but she’s been unable to count on the support of even people who want to leave, let alone those who don’t. According to pollster Opinium, 61% of Brits disapprove of her handling of Brexit. “I know there is a desire for a new approach and new leadership,” she told members of her ruling Conservative Party on March 27. “I won’t stand in the way of that.”
First comes the still-tricky task of delivering Brexit. On March 14, still with no consensus on moving forward with May’s deal, lawmakers voted to direct her to ask the E.U. for more time. Days later, at a summit in Brussels, leaders of the 27 other E.U. member states agreed to set a new deadline. Now, if lawmakers ratify May’s agreement with the E.U., Brexit will be postponed until May 22–and May will stand down. If they do not agree on a way forward, Britain is set to crash out of the bloc just two weeks after the original date, on April 12.
Assailed by protesters on one side and the E.U. on the other, May had long ago lost the support of many of her colleagues. At least 29 members of her government have resigned to vote against her Brexit policy since June 2017, and her Cabinet, delicately balanced between Remainers and Brexiters, is beset by regular leaks and open disagreement. May narrowly headed off an attempt to topple her premiership on March 24, according to reports, and her authority was torn to shreds two days later when lawmakers proposed 16 possible ways forward for the U.K., in defiance of her deal.
If Britain ends up with a so-called no-deal Brexit on April 12, trade agreements, citizens’ rights and customs arrangements could be nullified overnight. Authorities are preparing for possible food and medicine shortages, and the Bank of England has warned it could do more harm to the U.K. economy than the 2008 financial crisis.
A no-deal Brexit would have repercussions overseas too. Trade with every E.U. country would fall, with Germany and Ireland among the worst hit. The U.S. could also suffer: a recession in Britain, the U.S.’s fifth largest export market, would have knock-on effects for U.S. producers. The potential damage to the global clout of a country once seen as America’s diplomatic bridge to Europe is substantial.
There is, however, a mechanism to avoid a no-deal Brexit: revoking Article 50, the legal device by which Britain is exiting the E.U. “That’s the nuclear option,” says Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “It would mean not leaving at all.” Europe’s top court has ruled that the U.K. could cancel Brexit unilaterally, an outcome that would delight the millions who signed the anti-Brexit petition.
But it remains a remote possibility. Responding to the petition in a statement, the government said revoking Article 50 would “break the promises made by government to the British people, disrespect the clear instruction from a democratic vote and, in turn, reduce confidence in our democracy.” And May has repeatedly said she “will not countenance” canceling Brexit.
It may not be her decision for much longer. Waiting in the wings for her job are former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, both of whom would push for a no-deal Brexit over a cancellation, going against the wishes of a majority of lawmakers. “I’m afraid this saga will continue,” David Lammy, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party, tells TIME. “There’s a lot of drama ahead on the British political scene.” The passing of May’s deal, after two historic defeats, would be less a sign of her skill negotiating tactics than of her running down the clock. For now, the resignation of this Prime Minister might be the one thing on which a large majority in the U.K. can agree.
This appears in the April 08, 2019 issue of TIME.