The UK government has so far refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit, something the Official Opposition has demanded. Some hard-Brexiteers have claimed that ruling this out would weaken the UKs negotiation position, which doesn't make any sense, because clearly a no-deal Brexit is far more damaging for the UK than for EU-27. The UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 and changing domestic law takes time but is possible. The large majority of Parliament and probably a majority of Cabinet agree that a no-deal Brexit would be very disruptive. Then what is the political motivation to rule it out?

Perhaps this is more of a game theory question than a political question. Or should we see the threat of a no-deal Brexit a bit like a hunger strike or the self-immolation which threatened the Arab Spring?

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    @Orangesandlemons: That's a "two options, ignore one" scenario. Brexit has three options: Deal, No deal, Remain (cancel Article 50). Eliminating "no deal" leaves two options and therefore a negotiation position. And realistically, "Remain" is a threat that the UK can use to the EU at this point; which organization wants a member state that's so dysfunctional?
    – MSalters
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 17:16
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    @MSalters sorry, that is clearly not true; in fact senior EU figures have been openly stating that remain is their preferred outcome the whole time. And even if not 'If you don't, we'll maintain the status quo' is a bit of a new negotiating tactic.
    – user19831
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 17:26
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    @Jontia remaining is not a negotiating point for a deal - If you can't see how ridiculous 'If you don't agree a leaving deal we'll remain' is as a negotiating point I despair. As to the court case, 'No Deal' is a much bigger threat if revocation is not possible, for obvious reasons. there were other reasons for fighting the Court case as well of course.
    – user19831
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 18:13
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    @Orangesandlemons Maybe there is no good negotiating tactic when all possible outcomes (including remain) hurt the UK more (economically and/or politically) than the EU-27, and a negotiation tactic based on a falsehood ("EU needs UK more than UK needs EU") is a particularly bad one. Of course, what's bad for the UK is also bad for the EU, because the two economies are closely linked, so perhaps the strategy to rule out No Deal could be formulated as, "if we don't succeed, we'll both suffer".
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 18:15
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    @gerrit 'and a negotiation tactic based on a falsehood ("EU needs UK more than UK needs EU") ' that's not what the 'No Deal' states though. It's based on willingness to go through with a No Deal, not who gets hurt more. The point is, ruling it out reduces the options. You can say it's a weak card, but tearing it up leaves you with no card at all.
    – user19831
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 18:20

5 Answers 5


The government has no other bargaining chips. The EU will prioritize its biggest market, the single market, over the UK. The UK needs the EU far more than the EU needs the UK.

The only thing left that the UK has to bargain for a better deal from the EU with is the threat of leaving with no deal, which would result in hardship for the EU as well as wrecking the UK economy.

Thus the government thinks that if it rules out no deal, the EU will not give it anything, or perhaps it will appear weak to its own electorate. In reality, the EU is not playing this as a game and laid out the available options right at the start. The threat of no-deal is unlikely to alter its position.

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    "Wrecking" implies permanence, and there is no reason that whatever economic damage might ensue will be permanent, especially on long-term timescales similar to the current length of membership. Sensationalist writing should be avoided. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:32
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    @AndrewLeach "might" suggests possibility. Are you suggesting there is any evidence a no-deal brexit might come without economic damage?
    – JJJ
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 23:34
  • Evidence of the future is impossible. Using might can be seen as typical British understatement. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 7:19
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    @AndrewLeach the idea that the UK will probably one day recover after some uncomfortably long period of time isn't a very compelling argument. Most people who know anything about it consider no deal to be a near certain disaster. Even the government is calling up army reservists.
    – user
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 10:14

Before Parliament’s meaningful vote

Before Parliament voted on the government’s Brexit deal, Prime Minister Theresa May had told Parliament that her deal is the best one that could be negotiated with the European Union and that the UK runs a risk of a no-deal Brexit should her deal be voted down.

This line of argument was used as a leverage to convince Parliament to vote for her deal.

“We can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all, or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated.”

After Parliament’s meaningful vote

After the Parliament rejected the government’s Brexit deal and as there’s no alternative deal on hand, it takes time to consider the next steps or to negotiate a new deal with the EU. However, time is running out as UK has only slightly more than 2 months before exiting the EU, probably not enough time to negotiate a new deal without extending Article 50.

Since there aren’t any alternative deals at the moment and the UK hasn’t even started new negotiations with the EU, the UK will exit the EU on March 29th by default. As successful negotiations with the EU aren’t guaranteed, the government is possibly keeping all options on the table and not making any promises in ruling out a no-deal Brexit, unless the government is confident that they can negotiate another deal with the EU.

Tory peer Lord Finkelstein summed this up on BBC News:

“She doesn’t want no deal, because she has advanced a deal, she wants a deal.”

“But, she can’t announce there is going to be no, no deal, how does she know?”

“I want no deal not to happen. But, she can’t take it off the table because if we don’t have a deal there will be no deal.”

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    The way you put it, it sounds more like no deal as a way to strengthen her hand in convincing the UK Parliament into supporting the Withdrawal Agreement (which failed on 15 January), rather than in convincing the EU to do so. I don't understand your reasoning of Since the default option of a no-deal Brexit is ruled out, the EU could also provide a bad deal that’s bound to be voted down by the Parliament, they can just as well do that when no-deal is possible, perhaps even more so, forcing the UK to choose between deal and no-deal rather than between deal and remain.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 11:59
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    For the the EU could take its time to renegotiate, forcing the UK to extend Article 50 part, I'm not too sure the EU even wants the process prolonged. It adds a lot of uncertainty and instability to the whole EU, which, in my opinion, is worse than losing the UK without a deal. I think even having them remain, while knowing that they'd rather leave the first chance they get, might be a bad outcome for the EU at this point.
    – user20672
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 12:20
  • @gerrit That is true, I guess whether ruling out no-deal or not does not matter in negotiations with the EU. It's more of a way for the government to keep all options on the table unless the government is confident that a deal is possible with the EU.
    – Panda
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 12:20
  • She can rule out "no deal", kind of. Do a vote "do you want to leave the EU without a deal, yes or no". If there's a majority for "leave without a deal", then leave without a deal. Otherwise, there are two months to improve the current deal (Boris Johnson would only be too happy to help out, as a great and trustworthy negotiator), and then on the 27th of March a vote "take this deal or don't leave the EU".
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 0:26

Taking no-deal off the table is like solving hunger. While it's something many people support it's not a decision you can make like setting your alarm at 7 or turning on the television.

What the UK can do is choose a specific path that avoids no-deal (e.g. stay in the EU or make some deal with the EU). The difficulty in choosing such a specific part is that it requires a larger majority than there people that support it.

For example, only days ago May tried to pass her deal to avoid no-deal and it failed tremendously.

The only option to make a no-deal proposal work unambiguously is to define what action the UK takes and to do that requires compromise. MPs will have to vote for something other than their first choice.


Keeping no deal on the table is all about motivation. Both motivation for parliament to agree to whatever deal can be done before no-deal comes into effect and motivation for the EU to agree to whatever changes may be proposed. this provides motivation to form a majority for the current deal or whatever other deal can be done quickly as it encourages:

  • remainers to vote for the deal to avoid no-deal
  • those looking for a soft brexit to agree to avoid a no-deal
  • hard brexiters to vote for to avoid brexit being called off or delayed
  • those with other kinds of deal in mind to support he current deal to avoid no-deal brexit

In addition it gives a clear indication to the British people that the government is indeed intending to deliver some form of brexit.

The government is still bound by the withdrawal bill that has the date of leaving written into it. Thus they would be required to go back to parliament to remove this date. With the government having been defeated significantly Philip Hammond (the chancellor) has been quoted from a transcript of a phone call saying the government is considering if it can "take the option of no deal off the table" (source).

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    Sounds like blackmail.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:15
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    @gerrit blackmail = politics Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:24
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    @gerrit in the sense that "sign this employment contract or you won't get the job" is blackmail. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:26
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    @immibis A better analogy is "accept these worsening conditions or lose your job", which also happens in the real world.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 23:01
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    @gerrit parliament already voted for a path that leads to worsening the conditions: the withdrawal act. 'The turkeys that voted for Christmas'.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 23:25

Then what is the political motivation to rule it out?

I really don't know at all. Except for a few hard Brexiters, nobody in Parliament wants a no deal Brexit. Most of Tories and probably all of Labour would not want the chaos and predicted economical turbulence of a no deal Brexit. One can safely assume that given the choice between Theresa May's Brexit and a no deal Brexit, Parliament would prefer the first. There are more options still, but a no deal is not a serious contender given the general dislike of it and can safely be taken off the table. Leaving it on the table would amount to a very simple bluff that would probably easily be called by everyone.

I guess the UK government doesn't rule it out because by accident it could still happen, even though it's not a serious option. Or because they want to win a rather meaningless fight with Labour.

If no deal really was any realistic, there should have been voiced more support in the past and preparations should have been conducted more seriously.

Indeed, there is a compelling case for the benefits of taking no deal off the table: it would reassure the business which might otherwise postpone investments and it would save wasting resources on preparing the no deal Brexit.

My guess is that Parliament will take no deal off the table rather sooner than later. Indeed in the meaningful vote, Labour MP Hillary Benn initially tabled an amendment which would have taken no deal off the table with a rejection of the negotiated deal, but retracted it upon pressure from colleagues of his party.

  • Given the failure of the recent vote, I don't think you can safely assume that Parliament (taken as a whole) prefers May's deal to no-deal.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:59
  • @Bobson The recent vote was no vote between no deal and May's deal. How often have you heard MPs saying that they would prefer a no deal? Keeping an option on the table that nobody wants is just a simple bluff and can be ignored (mostly). Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 22:09
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    My understanding is that the recent vote was between May's deal and not having a plan (because the one existing plan was rejected and there isn't a second one yet). Since there's no guarantee that any other plan could get accepted, or even worked out in time, Parliament just said "We'd prefer to take the risk of a no-deal Brexit to May's plan". That's very far from preferring May's plan - or at least, it's very high-stakes gambling.
    – Bobson
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 22:18
  • @Bobson I think it's high stakes gambling. There is still enough time to avoid no-deal later. Parliament just said that they are not happy with the current plan. Doesn't mean they prefer a no deal. For example, Labour is concerned about the situation of workers, not about the backstop. They will surely not embrace a no deal chaos. There is no majority for a no deal. The chances that Parliament will vote for a no deal are minimal to non-existent. Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 8:14
  • @Trilarion Parliament doesn't have to vote for a no deal Brexit. It will happen automatically!
    – Josef
    Commented Jan 18, 2019 at 13:32

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