LONDON • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to suspend Parliament this month has brought a fresh wave of consternation and confusion to the country's already chaotic efforts to leave the European Union, while still leaving wide open the question of where it will end up on Oct 31, the day it 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 the EU without a deal, which they say would be economically calamitous.
Adding to the confusion, what happens next depends not just on the battle in Britain's Parliament but also on the flexibility of the unyielding EU leadership and, down the line, quite possibly on a British court.
Here are six of the most likely outcomes leading up to Oct 31.
1. LAWMAKERS TAKE CHARGE
Members of Parliament do not agree about much on Brexit, but most oppose what they see as a destructive no-deal exit 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 galvanised his opponents into action, and the Liberal Democrats' leader Jo Swinson, hinted in a BBC interview 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. THE 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 premier. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is too left-wing and, as a lifelong critic of the EU, is distrusted by determined opponents of Brexit.
Many would prefer a more centrist figure - perhaps former Conservative minister Kenneth Clarke - as the caretaker. That would require Mr Corbyn to agree 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.
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 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 the election could take place on Oct 17, allowing Mr Johnson - if he wins - to go to the EU summit the next day with a fresh mandate. But there could be a 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. Labour 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. EXITING THE EU WITH A DEAL
No one seems to think this option has much chance. After all, Parliament voted three times against a Brexit deal negotiated by Mr Johnson's predecessor, Mrs Theresa May, and the EU is refusing to reopen negotiations. But don't rule it out.
The critical dates are Oct 17 to 18, when EU leaders meet, providing a chance for last-minute negotiations. 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 it 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 he actually means what he says.
If EU leaders offer too few concessions for his liking, he might plough 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 this year or next year.
The risk, however, is that the predictions of economic chaos after a no-deal Brexit are borne out, making an election unwinnable for him.
6. THE COURTS DECIDE
There are already three cases being considered against Mr Johnson's move to suspend Parliament. Experts think these are unlikely to succeed - although Ms Gina Miller, an anti-Brexit campaigner, defied such predictions when she won a case against Mrs May's bid to bypass Parliament when starting exit talks. She is trying again.
But there may be other opportunities to go to court. If Mr Johnson refuses to resign after losing a vote of no-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.