Assistant Professor Peter Buisseret
Assistant Professor Peter Buisseret

As Brexit rattles new Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and roils the House of Commons, we sat down with Assistant Professor Peter Buisseret to dissect the prospects of a no-deal Brexit, an early general election, and the ramifications for the UK and Europe.

What's New

October 25, 2019

Peter Buisseret: Boris Johnson renegotiated a Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union. The new agreement removes the controversial Northern Irish “backstop”—the issue that brought down Theresa May’s deal in the British House of Commons. The key sticking point was that the backstop forced the whole of the UK to remain within the European Union customs union. This was unacceptable to many Conservative MPs, who argue that a key reason to leave the EU is to give the UK flexibility to negotiate its own trade agreements.

Under Johnson’s new deal, Northern Ireland (NI) will remain a part of the European Union’s single market, but leave the European Union’s customs union. Keeping NI in the single market removes the need for checks on goods including food and agricultural produce at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This partly alleviates some concerns about frictions at the border.

But, since the UK as a whole leaves the customs union, this creates a customs border between NI and the Republic of Ireland. To avoid customs checks on the border between these countries, there will instead be a new de facto border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Regulatory and customs checks and controls will be applied to goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Tariffs will be paid on goods being moved from Great Britain to NI if those products are considered “at risk” of being transported in the Republic of Ireland, i.e., into the European Union.

The net effect of this arrangement is to reduce the frictions at the border between NI and RI implied by Brexit, but to increase the frictions at the border between NI and the rest of the UK. This has cost Boris Johnson the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, which prioritizes above all a close relationship between the NI and the rest of the UK.

The Northern Ireland Assembly (Stormont) will have the opportunity vote on the arrangement, but only four years after the end of the transition period. Since the transition period is due to run until at least the end of 2020, this means the Northern Ireland will have a say on its arrangements no earlier than 2024. 

What's happening right now? 

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is busy trying to get his newly negotiated agreement through the House of Commons. The government failed to secure this agreement on Saturday. Under the Benn Act, a piece of legislation that was pushed through the House of Commons in September, Johnson was therefore forced to request an extension on the Brexit deadline from the EU until January 31st. Johnson’s official position is to strongly oppose a deadline extension, since his signature promise upon becoming Prime Minister was to leave the EU by October 31st, “do or die”.

Johnson made the request, as required by law, but accompanied it with a forceful statement that he did not want the EU to accept the request. The EU is currently considering the UK’s extension request, and is likely to grant it.

The House of Commons is now considering the legislation required to ratify Johnson’s deal. The chief complaint amongst legislators is that the government is rushing the bills through the House of Commons in order to reach its October 31st deadline. A number of MPs have indicated that they are prepared to support the legislation but want more time to scrutinize it. The net effect is that it is unlikely that Johnson will get his agreement over the finishing line by the end of the month.

Boris Johnson has called for an election. What will holding an election sooner than later mean for the passage of Brexit?

As Parliament mulls over holding the general election soon, there are two issues for Prime Minister Johnson.  The first is what the best chance of securing a majority that will last five years is.  It could be holding elections before Brexit is settled; this lets Johnson run an anti-Parliament, anti-remaining in the EU campaign. Brexit creates wedge issue that Johnson thinks works to his advantage.

That being said, having failed to leave the EU by October 31st, his state goal, may hurt Johnson with Brexit voters.  Also, if Johnson gets what he wants and the election is held soon, and he wins a nice majority, he could end up with the passage of a Brexit agreement he favors more than the current proposal on the table.  There are multiple reasons why you may want to have an election before Brexit, and there are no easy answers for Johnson or the opposition parties.

The second is the option to get Brexit done soon with the majority’s support. There appears to be a path forward that will pass Parliament – but is Johnson willing to go this direction, and compromise?

“It is highly unlikely they will give him this election. They see a net disadvantage of having Brexit on the table as an issue going  into an election for the Labour Party and other opposition parties.”

Buisseret's original comments (September 5):

For many Americans, the British Parliament is a confusing curiosity. Layer that with the complexities of Brexit and it’s easy to get lost. Can you set the stage for us in terms of what the situation is and what’s at stake?

The UK was originally due to leave the European Union on March 31, 2019. However, the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by then-Prime Minister Theresa May was rejected by the House of Commons three times. This led Theresa May to request an extension to the UK’s departure date, which was granted until October 31, 2019.

As a result of her failure to secure the UK’s exit, Theresa May was replaced by Boris Johnson. His new Conservative government adopted a notably more aggressive stance, committing to leaving the EU on October 31st “do or die”. But he quickly encountered the same difficulty as his predecessor: while the British Parliament is bitterly divided on the way forward, a clear majority stands against leaving the EU without an agreement.

Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on July 24, 2019.

Johnson responded by suspending Parliament for a crucial five-week period during September and October. In turn, the House of Commons wrestled control of its agenda away from the government on Tuesday evening. On Wednesday, it passed a bill forcing the government to request yet another extension from the EU in the event that no agreement is reached by the October 31st deadline. This bill is now working its way through the House of Lords.

Notably, 21 MPs from Johnson’s own Conservative party in the House of Commons supported the bill, and therefore voted against their own party. In retaliation, Johnson revoked their right to sit as Conservative MPs, and they will not be allowed to contest future elections on behalf of the Conservative Party. Amongst the defectors was Sir Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill, Ken Clarke, the longest serving member of the House of Commons, and Philip Hammond, who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer only six weeks ago.

What is at stake this week?

The Johnson government holds a minority position in the House of Commons. Having lost control of the legislative timetable, the government seeks an early election with the goal of winning a majority. To hold an election, he needs the support of two thirds of Members of the House of Commons. 

However, the opposition parties distrust Johnson’s intentions. Once an election is called, parliament is dissolved. The opposition parties anticipate that if parliament approves an election, Johnson will simply fix the election date after October 31st, yielding a “no deal by default”. The opposition parties are demanding that the bill forcing the government to request an extension pass, before any election is held. The government responded by calling for a general election. But, on Wednesday evening, this motion failed to pass the House of Commons. This puts the Johnson government in an extremely awkward position. 

Johnson has claimed to have made some headway in negotiations with the EU, although the opposition doubts this to be true. What do you think is likely to happen?

The major sticking point remains the “backstop”, an arrangement designed to ensure a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It was negotiated by Theresa May’s government as part of the Withdrawal Agreement that failed to pass the House of Commons.

The backstop would ensure that, after the UK leaves, Northern Ireland will remain in some aspects of the Single Market, and that the UK as a whole maintains a common customs territory with the EU. This would rule out the need for checks at the Irish border. The backstop would persist until mutual agreement is reached between the UK and the EU that the backstop is no longer necessary. That the EU must agree to remove the backstop is anathema to those in favor of Brexit, however, since they see it as a mechanism to keep the UK stuck inside the EU indefinitely. 

The Johnson government is in an awkward situation, with many options it finds unattractive, Buisseret says. Is it running out the clock?

The Johnson government has stated that the backstop is unacceptable, but in the absence of a viable alternative to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland the Republic, the EU has refused to give ground. It is very hard to see a resolution to this over any time horizon, let alone before October 31st.

Multiple EU sources claim that there has been no serious engagement from the Johnson government in negotiations. Many MPs suspect that the government is simply running out the clock, with the intention of blaming intransigent EU negotiators for the inevitable no-deal outcome.

What is most likely to happen? Two paths seem most likely, at this stage. One possibility is a general election before October 31st. A second possibility is an extension to the deadline, followed by an election. Note, however, that any request for an extension must be approved by the EU. And, neither option is attractive to the Johnson government.

Talk a little about the Trump – Boris phenomenon. Are they similar, not similar? 

US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Biarritz in 2019.

They are both from New York, they are larger-than-life, and they have unusual hair. Both are skilled campaigners, and both have transformed their parties, ideologically. However, Johnson is very much an establishment figure, and he has not yet won a general election.

What sort of complications do you anticipate?

The UK simply isn’t ready for a no-deal Brexit. The infrastructure and bureaucratic capacity is inadequate. Trade with the EU will become more difficult and costly. UK businesses already face uncertainty about the environment in which they’ll operate—including their ability to hire EU nationals. And in Northern Ireland, the prospect of a hard border puts the historic Good Friday agreement in jeopardy. Many in the UK seem to think that a no-deal Brexit will bring closure to what seems like an interminable process. They will be disappointed to learn that a no-deal Brexit brings about as much closure as a teenager achieves from slamming the bedroom door shut to get the parents out. Any relief will be short-lived.

Peter Buisseret is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. His research is focused on political economy theory, and understanding how political institutions—such as legislative processes and electoral rules—affect collective decision-making in societies. To date, his work has focused on the relative performance of parliamentary and presidential systems, designing reform strategies when there is uncertainty about who will hold future political power, and the durability of international agreements in the shadow of domestic elections.