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.

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.