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The stunning rise of Boris Johnson to prime minister has polarized people on both sides of Britain’s divorce from the European Union, says Anthony Grayling, founder and master of NCH at Northeastern in London. “The country is divided so deeply as a result of this, that it seems terribly difficult to find its way back.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Here’s why Brexit just became more complicated

The stunning rise of Boris Johnson to prime minister has polarized people on both sides of Britain’s divorce from the European Union, says Anthony Grayling, founder and master of NCH at Northeastern in London. “The country is divided so deeply as a result of this, that it seems terribly difficult to find its way back.” (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

How is Boris Johnson affecting the United Kingdom’s bitter negotiations to leave the European Union? The answer, according to author and philosopher Anthony Grayling, is that the new prime minister is instantly intensifying conflicts among British citizens on both sides of Brexit.

“The country is divided so deeply as a result of this, that it seems terribly difficult to find its way back,” says Grayling, founder and master of NCH at Northeastern in London. 

The ascension of Johnson, who insists on withdrawing from the European Union, has been driven by a minority of conservative hard-liners, Grayling asserts.

“If you can hijack an entire country on the basis of tiny, little groups that are having this much influence, then there is something very, very wrong with the political and governance order,” he says.

Grayling questions whether Johnson can assemble a coalition after being chosen by the Conservative Party to replace Theresa May, whose three-year reign was crippled by Brexit. And he anticipates negative consequences economically and politically for the U.K.—especially if Johnson leaves Europe in the absence of a trade agreement with the E.U.

“He has already sent a signal in his public statements to our European Union partners, which are very aggressive,” says Grayling, whose upcoming book, The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy, places Britain’s dilemma in a global context. “So he has set out his store for a major conflict.”

A recent poll conducted by Northeastern and Gallup shows that a majority of U.K. residents would oppose Brexit and support Britain remaining a member of the E.U., if they were given the chance to vote again in a new referendum. How have changes in public opinion affected the negotiations?

The people on the far right of the Conservative Party do not want to have another referendum because they would lose it. And they do not want to have a general election because they’re very worried about the effect that the polarization in the electorate would have.

Theresa May as prime minister tried to arrange some form of exit which would not be catastrophic for the British economy. And she failed to do it because the hard right in her party wouldn’t accept it, and the opposition here is completely dysfunctional. 

Has Johnson’s ascension increased the anti-Brexit movement?

The answer is yes. 

The more important, immediate point is that it is deepening the polarization and entrenching people on both sides of this argument. It will certainly galvanize the Brexit base for the people who are in favor of it. But it will also have the effect of increasing the “remain” sentiment by Johnson’s decision to sack 17 out of 22 senior ministers of the government, and replace them with people who are very much on the hard right wing of the party, all of them very dedicated to Brexit. 

What would be the consequences of an unnegotiated exit?

The Brexit process has evolved from merely leaving the European Union, to the potential of leaving without any kind of trade arrangement, which should be catastrophic for the economy. Every single sector of business—the CBI [Confederation of British Industry], the IMF [International Monetary Fund], everybody who has any expertise in these matters—have been warning about the catastrophic effects. And so this is going to harden the opposition to Brexit. 

What effect might Brexit have on the UK countries—Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—that wish to remain in the European Union? And what will become of the U.K.’s only land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

These are all major problems. If he were to drag the country out without a deal, immediately there is a serious problem in Ireland about how the border works there. Nobody but nobody has any idea at all how that would be handled and managed. One thing that I’ve heard myself, personally, from the lips of an ex-IRA [Irish Republican Army] soldier, is that the conflict in Ireland would start up again.

Scotland is determined to no longer be the patsy of England. You know, England has 85 percent of the population of the United Kingdom, and it has dragged Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland around, making decisions on their behalf, even when they’re opposed, as is the case of Brexit. And so now, the nationalist movement in Scotland, the independence movement there, has been itself galvanized by these developments, and the government there is already making some moves towards having a referendum on independence.

Can Johnson create a coalition from his splintered government?

That seems unlikely on the basis of what happened in Parliament [on Thursday]. His responses to the opposition parties were very adversarial. He didn’t hold out any olive branches or any possibilities of forming some kind of coalition, at least on the issue of Brexit. 

The ascension of Boris Johnson has been driven by a minority of conservative hard-liners, says Anthony Grayling, founder and master of NCH at Northeastern in London. Photograph by Suzanne Plunkett for Northeastern University

There are two main opposition parties, and they have now themselves hardened their stance. The smaller of them are the Liberal Democrats, and they’ve always been opposed to Brexit. 

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the larger of them, the Labour Party, which has been very equivocal for quite a long time, said in Parliament that they want to take this matter back to the people to have a public vote on the matter—and that the Labour Party will campaign to “remain.” 

So it really has hardened positions. It has deepened the lines of division. And we now wait to see what’s going to happen. 

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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