LONDON — Her cabinet is split and her party is at war, but Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, recently found time to get out and about, and says she heard a clear message from a weary public.
“They want to see this resolved,” Mrs. May told Parliament, referring to the tortuous, tedious, yet momentous task of withdrawing from the European Union, a process known as Brexit.
If so, the British are in for a disappointment. Not only is the Brexit process really just starting, in some respects it might never end.
On Tuesday, lawmakers are scheduled to vote on Mrs. May’s two-part plan for Britain’s departure: a legally binding agreement laying down divorce terms from the bloc, and a much vaguer declaration on future ties. If they defeat it, as many expect, they will be back to square one and, in all likelihood, pleading for an extension from the European Union that could last anything from a couple of months to a couple of years.
As Mrs. May put it on Friday, speaking in Grimsby, an eastern coastal town where support for Brexit was strong, “the only certainty would be ongoing uncertainty.”
Mrs. May wants last-minute concessions from the European Union to help persuade lawmakers to support her deal, and argued that “it needs just one more push, to address the final specific concerns of our Parliament.”
“Everyone now wants to get it done,” she said.
But even if her plan were to be accepted, reversing a historic defeat in January, lawmakers would only be signing off on the easy part. Mrs. May’s deal has been called a “blind Brexit,” because, after two years of bickering, it still leaves unanswered almost all of the tough and divisive questions about Britain’s future trade relationship with the European Union.
“People just want to get on with Brexit and get the job done,” said Bernardine Adkins, head of European Union, trade and competition at Gowling WLG, a law firm, yet “we are only just starting the journey, and it’s going to be immensely difficult.”
Ahead lie painful negotiations on trade links with the European Union and other partners, talks that, realistically, would take at least seven years and could stretch to more than double that, she said.
Others say even that time line is optimistic. “We are going to be negotiating on everything from aviation to energy to phytosanitary to financial services for ever more with our biggest neighbor,” said Ivan Rogers, who resigned as Britain’s top diplomat in Brussels in 2017 after being sidelined by Mrs. May.
Proximity to such a big trading bloc means that other nations that border the European Union, like Switzerland or Norway, “live in an entirely permanent state of negotiation with the E.U.,” Mr. Rogers told a seminar at the Institute for Government in London.
“We aren’t going to be able to avoid that,” he said, adding: “These fantasies of release, of liberation, are fantasies.”
For a time, at least, some of the poison that is a daily staple in the news media should drain away from the Brexit debate. But if British voters believe the angry discourse will quickly give way to dull, technocratic, discussions of tariff schedules, they are mistaken about that too, says Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London.
Even a victory for Mrs. May would provide only the shortest of political truces in her Conservative Party, he believes.
“It is going to be the illegitimate, unwanted, stepchild of Parliament,” said Mr. Menon. “The fight that they’re having in shadow form now they’ll start having properly — which is about the future.”
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Mrs. May’s deal does resolve some practical divorce issues, like Britain’s outstanding financial commitments to the bloc. But her package determines only what happens to trade in a transitional period, during which very little will change.
That will expire in December 2020, with a potential extension of up to two years to follow, allowing only the shortest of breathing spaces for Britain to complete trade talks with the European Union, its biggest trading partner, and others around the world.
But then what? And what kind of country does Britain want to be: a high-tax, high-spending European-style economy with a strong welfare state? Or a more liberal, free-market one with an American outlook — a sort of Singapore in the North Atlantic? Or maybe something in between?
That debate is stirring as cabinet rivals limber up for a battle to succeed Mrs. May — whose rocky leadership is under semi-permanent threat — and to grab control of those crucial trade talks.
The low-risk option would be a softish Brexit keeping Britain close to European rules and standards to protect industries and jobs that rely on smooth, frictionless trade. That could mean something like a customs union with the bloc, an option favored by the opposition Labour Party and, privately, by more pro-European cabinet ministers like the chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, and the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd.
But their wing of Mrs. May’s Tories is in retreat, and this approach would leave Britain in the position of implementing some European Union rules over which it would have little or no influence.
That would be a hard sell to those who bought the leave campaign’s slogan in the 2016 Brexit referendum — “Take back control” — and is positively anathema to most of the Tory Party membership and its more enthusiastically pro-Brexit lawmakers.
“Instead of introducing more bans and regulations, we should use our departure from the E.U. to cut taxes, reduce red tape and move away from the big-state European model,” said another Brexit supporter, Liz Truss, a senior Treasury minister, in recent remarks published by the Mail on Sunday newspaper. “This is a huge opportunity to remake the case for free-market conservatism.”
Mr. Rees-Mogg would scrap import tariffs, allowing cheap food and products to flood in, calculating that the economy would be jolted into life by a bracing blast of international competition.
But that comes with huge risks. Not only would farmers fear for their livelihoods, but the idea of admitting United States food imports has sparked a debate about agricultural practices, including hormone-fed beef, chlorinated chicken and standards for the humane treatment of animals.
“This idea we’re going to rip up the rule book,” said Ms. Adkins. “That’s lovely — but, at the same time, is that acceptable to the populace, to consumers?”
She added: “All it takes is the first kid who swallows a button from a teddy bear because we’ve thrown the rule book out on safety and there’ll be an uproar.”
Others, including some supporters on the left, see Brexit in more philosophical terms, as a way to reconnect communities with government, bringing decisions closer to the voters. Casting off European rules might allow governments to prop up lossmaking industries or direct procurement contracts to local companies, for example.
These three approaches, however, are incompatible, which implies that trade will become the crucible for a bigger clash of ideas.
“The fundamental debate we should be having is what kind of Britain do you want?” said Professor Menon. “But I fear that will get subsumed under a debate about what sort of relationship with the E.U. we want.”
“Logically speaking, that should be the other way around,” he added. “But we are doing everything backward.”