LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament next month has brought a fresh wave of consternation and confusion to Britain’s already chaotic efforts to leave the European Union, while still leaving wide open the question of where Britain will end up on Oct. 31., the day the country is scheduled to leave the bloc.
Mr. Johnson says he would rather Britain leave with a reworked Brexit deal but, failing that, it would be out the door anyway. His opponents have sworn to remove any possibility of leaving without a deal, which they say would be economically calamitous.
Adding to the confusion, what happens next depends not just on the battle between the prime minister and his opponents in Parliament, but also on the flexibility of the so-far unyielding European Union leadership and, down the line, quite possibly on a British court.
Following are six of the most likely outcomes leading up to Oct. 31.
1: Lawmakers Take Charge
Members of Parliament don’t agree about much on Brexit, but a majority oppose what they consider a destructive “no-deal” departure and would like to rule it out of bounds. By suspending Parliament for several crucial weeks, Mr. Johnson has made this hard. But he has also galvanized his opponents into action, and Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats, hinted in a BBC interview that they may copy Mr. Johnson in using an arcane procedure — she did not specify what — to stop a “no-deal” Brexit. So don’t count them out quite yet.
2: Parliament’s Nuclear Option
If they fail to legislate against a no-deal Brexit, lawmakers can resort to the ultimate weapon: a motion of no confidence, ousting Mr. Johnson from office. Currently, they do not appear to have the votes to pull this off. But even if they did, it might not solve their problem.
The law calls for the formation of a new government within two weeks or a general election. One option might be a caretaker administration that would presumably request another Brexit delay to afford time to hold an election. The problem is opposition leaders cannot agree on a caretaker prime minister. Jeremy Corbyn, the natural choice as leader of the Labour Party, is too left-wing, and as a lifelong critic of the European Union, is distrusted by determined opponents of Brexit.
Many would prefer a more centrist figure — perhaps the former Conservative cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke — as the caretaker. That would require Mr. Corbyn agreeing to stand aside, because a no-confidence motion could not succeed without his support.
And even if it did, Mr. Johnson has another trick up his sleeve, one that his supporters have repeatedly telegraphed: He could refuse to resign and then schedule a general election for November, in effect forcing through a no-deal Brexit. Dirty pool, perhaps, it would leave deep scars in the body politic. But there is nothing in the relevant law, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, requiring the prime minister to step down immediately.
3: A Snap Election
If lawmakers should succeed in quickly passing legislation outlawing a no-deal Brexit before Parliament is suspended, Mr. Johnson could try to outflank them again by calling a general election. This would be risky, but he needs to hold one soon anyway because he has a working majority in Parliament of just one seat, a margin far too small for comfort for any government. If there is an election soon, Mr. Johnson is likely to run as a champion of the people against a Parliament intent on obstructing the pro-Brexit outcome of the 2016 referendum. One theory is that the election could take place on Oct. 17, allowing Mr. Johnson — if he wins — to go to the European Union summit the following day with a fresh mandate.
But there could be a significant roadblock. To call an election, Mr. Johnson would need the support of two-thirds of the House of Commons, so he would need opposition votes. The Labour Party wants an election, but might demur if it thinks that, instead of a quick vote, Mr. Johnson wants to delay it until after the Brexit deadline.
4: Leaving the E.U. With a Deal
No one seems to think this option has much chance. After all, Parliament voted three times against a Brexit agreement negotiated by Mr. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and the European Union is stubbornly refusing to reopen negotiations. But don’t rule it out.
The critical date is Oct. 17-18, when the bloc’s leaders meet, providing an opportunity for last-minute negotiations (which is practically the only way things get done there). If a potentially disastrous no-deal Brexit is still a possibility, Mr. Johnson can put a gun to the heads of European leaders to get a revised deal, then put the gun to the heads of his lawmakers to get the measure passed. “Either accept my new, revised, Brexit agreement,” he will say, or we are headed for the dreaded no-deal exit.
5: A No-Deal Brexit
While it is widely thought that Mr. Johnson is using the threat of an unruly exit as a negotiating tactic, it is also possible that he actually means what he says. If European leaders offer too few concessions for his liking, he might plow ahead with a no-deal exit and, given the limited parliamentary time to stop it, he might succeed. It is, after all, the default option. That would allow Mr. Johnson to unite Brexit supporters behind him in a general election either late in 2019 or in 2020. The risk, however, is that the predictions of economic chaos after a no-deal Brexit are borne out, making an election unwinnable for him (and, if things are bad enough, possibly for the Conservative Party for years to come).
6: The Courts Decide
There are already three cases being considered against Mr. Johnson’s decision to suspend Parliament. Experts think these are unlikely to succeed — though Gina Miller, an anti-Brexit campaigner, defied such predictions when she won a case against Mrs. May’s efforts to bypass Parliament when starting exit talks. She is trying again now.
But there may be other opportunities to go to court. If Mr. Johnson refuses to resign after losing a vote of confidence and tries to push a general election beyond the Halloween deadline, a legal challenge would be likely. Then it could be judges, not lawmakers, who have the decisive voice in Britain’s biggest peacetime decision in decades.