Here’s how Brexit–postponed again–is testing political norms in the UK

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks in the House of Commons in London following the debate for the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill, Tuesday Oct. 22, 2019. British lawmakers have rejected the government’s fast-track attempt to pass its Brexit bill within days, demanding more time to scrutinize the complex legislation and throwing Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s exit timetable into chaos. (Jessica Taylor, UK Parliament via AP)

Brexit, the turbulent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, has been postponed—again—to make room for a general election, the results of which could determine whether it happens at all.

The three-year process of hammering out a plan to withdraw the U.K. from the EU has been rife with challenges, frustrated three prime ministers, and tested political norms. 

Mai’a Cross is the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science in the College of Social Science and Humanities, and Anthony Grayling is the founder and master of NCH at Northeastern in London. Photos by Adam Glanzman and Suzanne Plunkett/Northeastern University

In short, Brexit has spurred “a re-appraisal of our political and constitutional arrangements,” says Anthony Grayling, who is an author and philosopher as well as the founder and master of NCH at Northeastern in London. 

To start, the United Kingdom doesn’t have a written constitution, in the traditional sense. Rather, it has hundreds of years’ worth of Acts of Parliament, court judgments, and political conventions that are agreed upon and upheld by its leaders.

“The constitution is famously referred to as ‘a set of understandings that no one understands,’” says Grayling, who is working on a book about constitutional reform.  

Those conventions work when everyone agrees that they do, but what happens if everyone doesn’t play by the rules? In August, for example, Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided unilaterally to suspend Parliament for five weeks as the clock was running out on the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline.

The move was challenged in the U.K. Supreme Court (where the judges ruled unanimously that Johnson broke the law) but served to highlight that there are few, if any, hard checks on the executive branch, Grayling says. 

“We need to codify the constitution to have greater clarity and consistency,” he says.

As long as the U.K. is a member of the EU, it is bound by EU law—a codified constitution that constrains both British government and Parliament. If the U.K. leaves the EU, it leaves this set of written rules, creating “a vacuum of legislation at the British level,” says Mai’a Cross, who is the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science at Northeastern.

“The question is: How does that vacuum get filled? And that’s what politicians are trying to answer as they’re campaigning for the general election,” she says.

The U.K. general election, to be held on Dec. 12, is an important one. Parliament will be dissolved a month prior, and new members elected. If the composition of Parliament changes, it could change the fate of the country, Cross says.

“On the one hand, it’s appropriate and I’m glad it’s happening,” Cross says of the election. “There have been a lot of instances of running roughshod over democracy [during the Brexit process] and this allows the British people to weigh in and have a vote.”

On the other hand, she says, “it throws the future of Britain into turmoil, again.”  

The new members of Parliament will have several options for Brexit once they’re elected. If Johnson’s Conservative Party wins a majority, it’s likely that they’ll implement the Brexit deal Johnson negotiated with the EU, Grayling says.

If a coalition of the “opposition parties”—the parties whose members largely want the U.K. to remain in the EU, including the Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Green Party, among others—take the majority, it’s likely that they’ll call for another referendum on Brexit, Grayling says.

Meanwhile, the Brexit Party wants the U.K. to leave without a deal, and the Liberal Democrats, if they win a majority, would revoke Article 50—the section of the Lisbon treaty that sets out how a country would leave the EU—effectively eliminating Brexit altogether, he says.

“It’s a very mixed picture,” Grayling says. “As someone who thinks theoretically, it’s fascinating. As someone living through it, it’s quite unpleasant.”

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