Brexit strategy Q&A: What’s next?

Political scientist Brendan O’Leary, an expert on U.K. politics, talks about the latest deal on that country’s efforts to leave the European Union, what the Dec. 12 parliamentary election may bring, and what comes after Jan. 31

The United Kingdom voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union, but the path out has been anything but straightforward. Former Prime Minister Theresa May was unable to persuade Parliament to pass her Brexit bill on three occasions, with the main sticking points having to do with trade and the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. May resigned last spring after failing to secure the bill. When Boris Johnson took over as prime minister in July, he vowed to push through a new deal and leave the EU by Oct. 31. Johnson finally managed to reach a deal with the EU on Oct. 17 but was still forced to seek an extension on exiting. That is now pushed back to Jan. 31. A general election campaign is underway in the U.K.

Penn Today spoke with political science professor Brendan O’Leary, an expert on U.K. politics, to look at the latest deal reached with the EU, next month’s elections, and what happens next. A native of Ireland, O’Leary was a political advisor to Irish, British, and American officials during the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1980s and ‘90s.

looking up at a Union Jack flag hanging from a balcony under a blue sky


Boris Johnson said he’d ‘rather be dead in a ditch’ than delay Brexit. For all the tough talk, he couldn’t get it through. What happened?

He chose not to get it through. He had succeeded in getting Parliament, for the first time, to pass the second reading of a specific withdrawal act, but he chose to precipitate a general election. He appeared to believe that if the bill went into committee stage, it might suffer amendments that he wouldn’t approve of. So, he’s taken a risk, and he’s eaten his words: If you inspect all the ditches in the world you will not find a dead Boris Johnson. 

Johnson did finally make a compromise that was acceptable to Ireland and the EU’s other 27 members. That involves very special arrangements for Northern Ireland, in which it remains in the European Union’s single market for goods, agriculture, and anything to do with food, and now effectively remains in the EU’s customs union and VAT regime. That settled the last of the three major withdrawal-agreement questions.

What will the general election decide, and what risks might it pose?

It is a gamble because Johnson starts off in a position that isn’t as good as Theresa May’s in the summer of 2017, when she initiated a general election before one was required. She went on to lose her lead decisively, ending up just a few percentage points ahead of Labour and having to form a government without a majority, backed by the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. Some people think that Johnson is facing the exact same kind of risk. Campaigns matter. The public won’t want to talk solely about the U.K.’s departure from the European Union; there’s an abundance of other questions at stake. 

The electorate in England has never been more volatile, that is, willing to change parties between elections. Given that level of volatility, it is a high gamble to initiate an election.

What is your prediction for the election?

I would be a fool to have a general prediction. I expect to be surprised in some way, but in what manner I don’t know. I have two firm small predictions: I expect the Scottish National Party to do extraordinarily well in Scotland, and I expect the Democratic Unionist Party to lose seats in Northern Ireland. All the rest, especially in England, is volatile, subject to the effective performance of the rival candidates, and the unpredictable effect of the Brexit Party. 

After the election, what’s next?

The first scenario is a Conservative majority. If that transpires, I don’t think Johnson will have any difficulties in implementing the recent withdrawal agreement. It will go through Parliament, it will go through committee, it won’t be substantially amended, and therefore the U.K. could exit on Jan. 31 or a little earlier, though there’s a lot still to be legislated.

Scenario 2 is a Labour majority government. Labour promises that within six months it will put before the British people a revised withdrawal agreement and ask them to vote for that or to remain. The difficulty is that the European Council might say, ‘No, we just reached an agreement with Johnson; we’re not going to change the content of the withdrawal agreement.’ We’ll have to see. 

The last scenario is a Parliament without an overall majority for the Conservatives or Labour, and here there are two possibilities. 

A Labour minority government supported by the Scottish National Party and by the Liberal Democrats and others. In these circumstances, Labour would try to press forward with its original plan. The referendum idea would be acceptable to the SNP and the Liberal Democrats because they think that there’s now likely a majority for remain in the whole of the U.K.

In the alternative, a Conservative minority government would face exactly the dilemmas that Johnson has just been in, and one wonders whether he would survive as leader of his party. He plainly would not get the support of the DUP. Most of the new Labour MPs are going to be strong remainers. If the Conservatives were the largest party, but without a majority, they would likely be incapable of making an alliance with either the DUP or the Brexit Party because they would seek to wreck the withdrawal agreement.