The EU talks mainly to itself and to its elites

The latest EU Parliament elections offered a new milestone for assessing the efficiency of its institutional communication. In this blog, Jorge Tuñón and Uxía Carral (Carlos III) argue that the failures of EU’s communication efforts can be ameliorated if the European Union substantially reforms its institutional communication regarding the main challenges ahead: the creation of a European public sphere, the identity crisis, the multilingualism, Brexit, the Euro-myths, and fake news. They analyse how European institutions have been speaking to the European population about the issues above. 

This investigation focuses on measuring the impact of EU’s communication to the audiences of three countries (Germany, United Kingdom and Spain). With regard to the analysis, we argue that it is fundamental to take into consideration the socio-political and economic frameworks, as well as the differentiating sense of belonging which citizens of each country show towards the European integration process. Additionally, the analysis of social networks uncovers new narratives that European institutions have been using to appeal the youngest audiences in order to combat populism and Euroscepticism.

There is no doubt that these days the EU has the duty to make its actions known across different mediums, among which social media appear to be crucial to connect political actors with society. This may be seen as one of an essential strategy of political communication of a supranational entity such as the EU. Consequently, our work highlights how the representative offices of the EU in Germany, United Kingdom and Spain use the social network Twitter as the main platform to inform, communicate, involve and to sway the opinions and the national public agendas of the Member States. We find that the Europhile or the Eurosceptic feelings that prevail in each country determinate EU’s communication in these Member States. Furthermore, specific communication tendencies have been detected for each country regarding four aspects analysed (frequencies, functions, contents, and sources).

With regard to word frequencies, we show that the geographical and political distance with respect to the European decision-making processes incentives the use of Twitter as a communication tool. Accordingly, the same size of the sample for an identical period of time, as well as the quantity of followers shows that, firstly, the geographical distance (Spain) and then, the political one (United Kingdom) positively conditions the use of the social network Twitter by the EU. It is also presumed that a deeper analysis of the engagement data (comments, Rt and likes) would validate the hypothesis for both cases. In contrast, the percentage change of frequencies in the EU’s representative offices in Germany revealed contradictory management of their profiles. There is a higher number of interactions and provision of own content in the Commission account than in the Parliament’s account.

Graphic 1 / Results from the frequencies for the cases of Berlin, London and Madrid EC an EP

Moreover, crossing the variables of frequencies (Graphic 1) and contents (Graphic 3), it can be claimed that, although the EU Commission uses Twitter more frequent than the EU Parliament, the reach is quite similar due to little differentiation between the message sent by each profile. The impact of these accounts on Twitter does not differ considerably due to the homogeneity of content and themes published by either the office of the EU Commission or the EU Parliament. Nevertheless, in terms of frequencies, we observe a superior use frequency for the EU Commission than the EU Parliament accounts in the three countries analysed.

Graphic 2 / Results from the contents for the cases of Berlin, London and Madrid EC an EP


Furthermore, Euroscepticism determines the message regarding content and its function. Indeed, the discrepancies within the degree of Europeanization, or the development of the Eurosceptic movement, have been revealed as determinants in each country. On the one hand, we found an exclusive theme concentration about the relationship between the EU and the Member State, and the citizenry, as well as a lack of attention to EU policies, in both accounts belonging to the EU institutions located in London. Those results were contrasted with the ones in Berlin and Madrid, which had a more widespread thematic covergar and, concretely, a broader focus on EU policies, and less interest in EU politics and the EU as a political project.

There is also a difference with regard to the achievements category at the functions level. Particularly, it seems to be necessary for the institutional profiles in the UK to report about the EU’s achievements because of Brexit and the Eurosceptic climate. This phenomenon derives from the negative impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, as well as the interest of the EU delegation to counteract any kind of misinformation and fake news. In contrast, Berlin-based offices attribute the lack of insistence in promoting EU’s objectives to the faith in the European process among the German population. Such an explanation is also shared by the Spanish entities, which is further explained by the geographical and political proximity to the European institutions and to the European decision-making processes.

Graphic 3 / Results from the functions for the cases of Berlin, London and Madrid EC an EP

However, EU’s information strategy is one-directional. It is aimed towards a limited audience comprised of political or institutional elites and does not involve other actors/stakeholders from any of the three states. Effectively, the involvement of any actor except the representatives of the EU institutions is practically nonexistent. Neither civil society associations, nor journalists or academics have had any involvement in the production, management, or dissemination of the information published via Twitter and targeted at the national audiences of the three countries.

Graphic 4 / Results from the actors for the cases of Berlin, London and Madrid EC and EP

Therefore, we find that the EU talks to itself and to its elites, but not to EU citizenry en masse. The ‘European message’ sent out by the EU institutions in member states is unidirectional and does not represent or involve the variety of actors comprising European society. Political and institutional actors dominate the communication efforts of EU offices in Berlin, London and Madrid. There is a glaring lack of involvement of civil society, the academy or the press, among other stakeholders, in this process.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image License: CC0 Public Domain.

This research is a part of two projects funded by the European Agency for Education, Culture and Audiovisual (EACEA) of the European Commission, Jean Monnet (Erasmus +): Jean Monnet Module EUCOPOL (reference: 587167-EPP-1-2017-1-ES-EPPJMO-MODULE); and Jean Monnet Network OPENEUDEBATE (reference: 600465-EPP-1-2018-1-ES-EPPJMO-NETWORK). This article is also part of another project (FAKENEWS) funded by the Spanish Research Agency, from the Science, Innovation and Universities department (Reference: RTI2018-097709-B-I00).

Jorge Tuñón is European Ph. D., Lecturer at the University of Madrid (Carlos III) and consultant on European Public Affairs and Communication. He is External Expert of the EU Parliament and EU Commission evaluator. At current, he belongs to the OPENEUDEBATE EU network and leads the European Project “EU Communication Policy: challenge or miracle? EUROPEAN COMMISSION – ERAMUS +, (EUCOPOL).

Uxía Carral is a postgraduate student in Applied Research to Mass Media at the University Carlos III of Madrid. At current, she is a PhD candidate focused on European public sphere and Eurosceptic phenomena (Brexit, populism, etc.). Previously, she has worked for the European OPENEUDEBATE and EUCOPOL projects.

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Book Review: Citizens of Nowhere: How Europe can be Saved from Itself by Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese

In Citizens of Nowhere: How Europe can be Saved from ItselfLorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese offer an innovative look at citizenship, grounded in the development of a transnational civil society sphere across Europe. This is an ambitious, perceptive and clear-sighted argument for a transnational citizenship and politics, writes Ben Margulies, that also details the political project required to make it a reality. 

Citizens of Nowhere: How Europe can be Saved from Itself. Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese. Zed Books. 2018.

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Politics is a realm of abstract nouns and concepts, and we often use or pass over these without too much interrogation. ‘Citizenship’ is among these terms. It is a legal status, or a vague exhortation to public-spiritedness, or a legal burden to acquire or overcome.

This is unfortunate, because the institution of citizenship is especially relevant to the dilemmas and grievances of modern politics. Citizenship is what Isaiah Berlin would characterise as a form of ‘positive liberty’ – a freedom to do something, specifically to actively participate in the acts and processes of governance. If the chief complaints of the populist age are a sense of powerlessness and neglect, then citizenship is an obvious solution.

But citizenship of what? Populists – left and especially those designated ‘radical right’ – typically answer with ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’. Those populists on the radical right seek to make that citizenship meaningful by drawing thick borders around the body of citizens (‘nativism’) and by advocating direct democracy over the representative sort. Centre-right politicians have also embraced this framework in a bid to meet citizen dissatisfaction – this is what Theresa May meant in her 2016 party conference speech, when she said:

But today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

May’s speech provides the launchpad for Citizens of Nowhere: How Europe Can Be Saved from Itself, an innovative look at citizenship from authors Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese published by Zed Books. Marsili and Milanese are London-based activists and the founders of European Alternatives, which encourages the development of a transnational civil society sphere across Europe.

Marsili and Milanese’s work extrapolates from sources and arguments which have been aired elsewhere in the debate over Europe’s future. Where their book shines, however, is in analysing the relationship between citizenship and governance – not just the nation state, but the means and institutions by which we are governed.

Marsili and Milanese’s core argument is that citizenship is only meaningful in relation to the fact of being governed. This means that nation-state citizenship is no longer uniquely relevant, because ‘the governing political elites are spread between international and non-national institutions and authorities’ (83). Since citizenship is only truly valuable as a means of self-government and accountability, then national citizenship is insufficient – it cannot provide self-government in a context where much of government occurs beyond the nation state, or beyond any state, in the realm of the global market. Without some sort of transnational citizenship, most people lack any agency: ‘the vast majority of us are ‘‘citizens of nowhere’’ to some extent, and we will remain so until we invent political forms of agency that are equal to the forces shaping our world’ (4). This disempowerment also prevents us from imagining alternative futures to the neoliberal order, and this too makes us ‘citizens of nowhere’, as ‘meaningful political citizenship requires the possibility of acting in support of what currently seems impossible’ (12).

Image Credit: (Pixabay CC0)

Citizens of Nowhere offers a detailed exposition of how a focus on the national impedes effective political campaigning and organisation. On the one hand, fantasies of seceding from the global market and creating an autarkic nationalist bastion cannot work. A nation state could withdraw from common monetary, commercial or juridical agreements:

But given that each state would remain subject to some of the governance authorities and would need to trade with others, cooperate militarily, rely on international law and so on, the harm to which they would subject themselves by leaving some elements of the international system would surely undermine internal support for pulling out totally (82)

At the same time, existing transnational institutions are designed to exclude democratic participation and contestation. The end result is a nationally focused politics which obscures the common economic condition of those exploited under neoliberalism, and the common political condition of ‘being governed’, citing Michel Foucault (148).

The book also contains a number of interesting passages on the various threats to and manipulations of citizenship. Massili and Milanese devote a chapter to how citizenship has been devalued by its sale to wealthy investors, and by the willingness of states to strip nationality from citizens on national security grounds (creating ‘disposable citizens’). States also claim – as May did – that citizenship cannot exist unless borders are closed and harshly policed to keep outsiders from accessing its privileges. Citizenship becomes not a right to do anything for oneself, but to exclude and punish others – because that is all that citizens under neoliberalism are really allowed to do. ‘Sovereignty is configured as the power to decide who loses their rights’ (148).

What really shines through in the text is the idea that citizenship cannot be fully national, because it rests ultimately on a fundamental conception of human equality. Massili and Milanese link the concept back to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), the first French human-rights legislation. The authors observe that this declaration spoke not of French rights, but universal rights, and that the revolutionary regime freely granted citizenship to noted foreign liberals until 1793 (137-39). Thus, migrants are citizens because all human beings are.

The authors’ solution to the gap between citizens and the transnational system that rules them is to create a ‘transnational’ party. This party, like the neoliberal elite, would be ‘promiscuous’ in its activities – it would act at all levels of governance (national and supranational), and in both governmental and non-governmental spheres. ‘The party would be placed simultaneously beyond and between formal institutions of state and politics’, and ‘would care for all the ways in which politics is conducted outside the institutions’ (194). It would transcend ‘inter-national’ approaches that take nation states as the main actors in supranational politics, and it would create the subject, the demos, necessary for such a transnational democratic politics (‘for a democracy, you do not need a people, you need parties!’ (190)).

Of course, everyone wants an open, liberal party rooted in a vibrant grassroots activism. Every political activist – or, at least, those who tend to call themselves progressive – wants their party to be ‘a space of coordination and collaboration’ with a mission to ‘multiply civic energy by creating connections’ (199), rather than a top-down structure reminiscent of Robert Michels’s ‘iron law of oligarchy’. In practice, the literature doesn’t give Massili and Milanese much cause for hope – typically, left-wing parties that grow from or in tandem with social movements, like Podemos (Spain), Syriza (Greece) or the Workers’ Party (Brazil), find that, once in power, they tend to draw the social movement activists into office and focus on electoral concerns. The grassroots tend to wither as a result. One of Podemos’s early notables complained in Jacobin recently about how the party had few militants and an insular, elitist leadership.

Citizens of Nowhere has a few flaws. The discussion of neoliberalism, though necessary, is something of a potted history. The authors also have a tendency to speak of neoliberalism as if it were a unitary actor, manipulating national differences in order to befuddle and frustrate the common people. Though neoliberal elites are certainly capable of a bit of national chauvinism, this rhetoric incorrectly implies that neoliberal elites act in concert, which Brexit surely disproved. It also implies that neoliberal politicians and economists are not themselves socialised to nationalism, embodying the contradictions between the national and the international in themselves. Again, the desire from a post-Brexit ‘global Britain’ would seem to illustrate this point.

Though the authors’ overview of history and contemporary politics is a bit uninspired, Citizens of Nowhere is nevertheless an ambitious and perceptive book. It advances an innovative and clear-sighted argument for a transnational citizenship and politics, and a detailed political project for making that citizenship a reality. The question at hand is whether that project can outpace the nationalist, nativist turn of our contemporary politics.

Please read our comments policy before commenting.

This article is provided by our sister site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics.

Ben Margulies is a lecturer in political science at the University of Brighton. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Warwick. He specialises in European, comparative and party politics.

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The risks of simple majority referendums: learning from Quebec

duncan bannermanBritain voted to leave the EU in a simple majority referendum. Gordon Bannerman (University of Guelph-Humber) argues that it would have done better to follow Canada’s example. After Quebec narrowly voted to avoid separation in 1995, the country revisited its approach to referendums. Indeed, not all UK referendums have involved a simple majority.

Canada has often featured on the LSE Brexit pages in terms of its past and prospective trading relationship with Britain. But surprisingly little comment has been made on the constitutional precedents Canada provided for pre-Brexit Britain, especially arising from the 1995 Quebec referendum, which resulted in a narrow 50.58 per cent to 49.42 per cent majority rejecting separation.

quebec flag

The Quebec flag. Photo: abdullahh via a CC BY SA 2.0 licence

Afterwards, alert to the potentially momentous implications of a simple majority popular vote, government set to work to provide a new legal framework for referendums. Mistakes had been made. The federal government had no input in drafting the question, with the impetus handed to pro-independence parties (Parti Québécois, Action démocratique du Québec, and Bloc Québécois) whose question asked if voters agreed Quebec “should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership”.

The convoluted, hedged language, described by the British High Commissioner to Canada Sir Anthony Goodenough as “gobbledygook”, concerning the future of Quebec/Canadian relations was not new. Even greater obfuscation had characterised the referendum of 1980, with a question consisting of 106 words, to grant Quebec’s government a mandate to negotiate “sovereignty-association” with Canada. In both cases, the language conveyed the impression of a smooth transition to independence amidst the willing cooperation and assistance of the federal government. The reality was that such a scenario could not be guaranteed. The Quebec nationalist parties had also threatened to make a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) should a vote for separation not be honoured within one year. The Canadian government of Jean Chrétien, acting largely on the ideas of Stéphane Dion, the Minister for Federal Provincial Relations, requested the country’s Supreme Court to rule on the legality of UDI, relative to international law and Canada’s constitution. Acting on the 1998 judgment Reference Re Secession of Quebec, Chrétien codified the Supreme Court’s recommendations in the Clarity Act (Bill C-20) in 2000. Any future referendum question had to be presented in the House of Commons and approved by both Houses. Section 1(4) stipulated that questions providing only a mandate for future negotiations with Canada would be considered unclear and invalid. The question had to be “clear”, and voted by an (unquantified) “clear majority” for the Federal Parliament, as arbiter, to recognise its validity. No longer would 50 per cent + 1 be deemed sufficient for far-reaching constitutional changes – in future, a stronger mandate would be required. There the question has rested, as no referendum has taken place since 1995.
As some Canadian commentators have argued, Britain should have learned from the Quebec experience.

Some diplomats and politicians, such as Sir Anthony Goodenough and Malcolm Rifkind (Foreign Secretary, 1995-1997), did see important lessons from the Canadian experience but these were more pointed towards drawing parallels between the nationalist movements in Quebec and Scotland. While lauding the Canadian government’s measures in undermining separatism, the example of the Clarity Act in strengthening central government did not seem to gain traction in Britain.

Yet examples existed closer at home. Since the 1970s, referendums – previously almost unknown in Britain – have been used in popular decision-making. There has been no fixed formula. In the 1975 EEC referendum a simple majority was required, but the 1979 devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales, preceded by legislative acts, were framed more cautiously. Parliament was firmly in control of the process, and an amendment (Section 58(2) of the 1978 Scotland Act) by the Labour MP George Cunningham, supported by Conservative and Labour anti-devolutionists, stipulated that for the Acts to become law, an affirmative vote of 40% of the total registered electorate would be required as well as a simple majority.

The amendment imposed a qualified majority, by making the vote of every registered voter count – meaning non-voters were counted as votes against. The electoral register used was based on a qualifying date of October 1978. There were over 500,000 “unavoidable non-voters” including prisoners, hospital patients, and those moving home. Most notoriously, the amendment meant those registered in October 1978 who had since died were counted as votes against. The grievances were not all on one side—some argued the 40% rule reduced the anti-devolution vote, since many voters, by equating abstention with casting a vote against, stayed at home. The 40 per cent threshold was not attained in either country but in Scotland a majority of votes cast (51.6 per cent) voted for devolution but on a 63.72 percent turnout, the total amounted to only 32.9 per cent of registered voters. While making no difference in Wales, the amendment negated the simple majority achieved in Scotland.

The historical and political context was crucial in establishing the framework for the respective referendums. The 1974 Labour government, lukewarm on devolution but needing SNP parliamentary votes, reluctantly acted on the 1973 Kilbrandon Report’s recommendations, but readily accepted the Cunningham amendment as a safeguard. By contrast, the 1997 referendums for a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly promoted by the pro-devolution Blair Government imposed no qualified majority rule. Despite the establishment of the Electoral Commission (EC) with referendum management, via the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act (PPERA) of 2000 being statutory acknowledgment of referendums as a fixture in the UK’s political landscape, little has changed. In 2014 and 2016 the EC played a key role in ensuring intelligible wording of questions but it neither drafts original questions nor decides what constitutes a majority vote – those decisions are made by Parliament, and subject to the vicissitudes of party politics.

The simple majority formula used in the 2011 AV vote, Scottish independence vote of 2014 and the EU referendum of 2016 followed the format of 1975 and 1997 rather than the more cautious provisions of 1979. The assumption that the policy preferences of the main Westminster parties were shared by a majority of the electorate was reckless and dangerous. While validated in 2011 and 2014 (though for Scotland, as with Quebec, the result was perhaps closer than it should have been) the gamble did not pay off in 2016.
The Cameron government was remarkably complacent not only in setting the referendum terms but in failing to make any contingency plans (unlike in 1975) in the event of an EU exit – an extraordinary dereliction of duty, which, as the 2017 House of Commons report ‘Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum’ stated, led to unnecessary political instability: “Such preparation would negate the need for the Prime Minister to resign … It should be reasonable to presume that the sitting Prime Minister and his/her administration will continue in office and take responsibility for the referendum result in either eventuality”.

How far David Cameron was genuinely committed to the referendum promised in 2013 remains unknown. If a “bluff-call”, it clearly failed but in having to deliver a referendum it would have been wise to have considered the format more carefully. Qualified majorities are often used in the public and private sectors (not least in the EU), and in an electoral system underpinned by majoritarian principles, it is questionable how difficult it would have been to impose. While the proposal would probably have met with opposition from Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party, that doesn’t seem like a good reason for adopting a hazardous simple majority formula, lending credence to the view that Cameron was guilty of putting party before country.

Leading political scientists, including Vernon Bogdanor and Peter Hennessy, have expressed grave misgivings over using referendums, and the lesson for post-Brexit British governments seems to be to tread carefully. Before the 2016 referendum, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard was one of the few who found the absence of a threshold “constitutionally quite surprising for a decision as big as this”. Afterwards, of course, many Remainers concurred.

Britain’s non-codified constitution ensures referendums are considered legally advisory rather than politically binding but in practice, no government has been prepared to ignore the outcome of a referendum. Given these customary pressures, it makes sense to ensure a proper balance between expressions of the popular will while minimising the chances of a fierce populist outburst.

How different things looked in 1817, when George Canning stated:

“When I am told that the House of Commons is not sufficiently identified with the people, to catch their every nascent wish and to act upon their every transient impression,—that it is not the immediate, passive, unreasoning organ of popular volition,—I answer, thank God that it is not! I answer, that according to no principle of our constitution, was it ever meant to be so;—and that it never pretended to be so, nor ever can pretend to be so, without bringing ruin and misery upon the kingdom.”

By using referendums, we have moved far from Canning’s deliberative assembly model, but the Canadian example indicates that referendums can be – and should be – more closely managed. Canada’s Clarity Act might have been a useful reference point for British policy-makers, for protecting territorial integrity and promoting political stability are fundamental elements of responsible government. Imposing more rigorous conditions may seem Machiavellian to some, but it is far from incompatible with maintaining democratic legitimacy – in many ways it may ensure more mature and measured decision-making in the contemplation of far-reaching constitutional issues. The alternative can be decisions made on a transitory and/or ill-informed basis.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Gordon Bannerman is a professor at the University of Guelph-Humber.

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Despicable migrants? UK’s treatment of foreign criminals will only harden after Brexit

An increasing number of EU nationals who have committed crimes find themselves being deported. In the context of the UK’s tortured departure from the EU, the deportation of foreign criminals has become a touchstone of British notions of the public goodwrites Nevena Nancheva (Kingston University London). She argues that the UK has effectively curtailed the rights of what it sees as a particularly despicable group of migrants – foreign criminals. Rather than looking at its own inequalities, it has chosen to tighten its physical and invisible borders. 

Britain used to deport its criminals. In fact, it used to deport all ‘wicked and evil-disposed persons’ whom the judges were too merciful to execute instantaneously for a long list of crimes against property, or indeed, for being idle or seeking employment, as section V of the Transportation Act of 1717 mandates. Such offenders were transported originally to the West Indies (where they habitually neglected to stay), then to America (a secret often brushed under the carpet by American historians and politicians alike), then, amidst the turmoil of American revolution and to prevent the French from extending their empire, to Australia in 1787.

In those days, the dispossessed, the idle, the vagrant, the lewd fell into the category of criminals because they threatened the established social order. They were bound for expulsion to protect sovereign landowners, the common good, and the good society. The mobile, in particular, were frowned upon as ‘the chrysalis for every species of criminal’. From a longue durée historical perspective, Bridget Anderson spends a lot of time unpacking the link between vagrancy and criminality in Britain, positioning the migrant as essentially a ‘failed citizen’.

Today, we begrudgingly agree that our criminals, petty or not, are our own problem and should not be dumped on indigenous peoples around the world. (That is, unless we can strip them of their citizenship and invite Bangladesh to deal with them!) Foreign criminals, however, are a totally different matter: a cause célèbre for a host of Labour and Tory leaders, the deportation of foreign criminals has gradually become the norm, rather than the exception to the rule.

Changing the rule book

The notion of Britain’s ‘public good’ has remained intrinsically linked to this development: under the 1971 Immigration Act, non-citizens are liable to deportation if this is deemed to be ‘conducive to the public good’ (section 3(5)). There is no explicit mention of criminality in this law, but the 2007 UK Borders Act amends the omission by explaining that ‘the deportation of a foreign criminal is conducive to the public good’ for the purposes of the above (section 32).

The amendment came after a string of scandals and heated public debates over the fate of some 1,023 foreigners who had been released from British prisons into society since 1999, rather than considered for deportation, costing the office of the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke. It is perhaps not coincidental that these discussions arose in the process of EU enlargement to the 10 former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. Even though regions in turmoil (such as Somalia) or human rights (e.g. international refugee protection) were cited at the time as constraints on deporting foreign criminals, Charles Clarke went on to write a book about the threat of migration within the EU, capturing a long-standing concern of the British public with the open borders and the freedom of movement which the EU seemed to be all about.

The invisible boundaries of Britain

In the context of Brexit and UK’s tortured extraction from the EU, the deportation of foreign criminals has become an interesting touchstone of British notions of the public good: that elusive abstraction which pits the lives and rights of concrete men, women and children against a fuzzy and imagined, but clearly incomparably more significant, entity: the nation. In 2018, I conducted a pilot study of the impact of deportation on the families of foreign criminals in the designated foreign nationals male prison HMP Maidstone. What I discovered in my conversations with matter-of-fact prison wives, is that the law is implemented with implicit disregard for the integrity of their families and the welfare of their children. That the much-lauded ‘public good’, upheld in the letters from the Home Office and the decisions by the judges, should trump the best interests of these families points to the boundaries of Britain’s community of value. As the Brexit dynamics narrows these boundaries, the distinctions between those who clearly do not belong (such as foreign criminals) and those who should belong but are not really welcome (such as EU nationals) become blurred.

Image: author’s, Walls of HMP Maidstone, The Visits Building (1819).

No Article 8 rights for foreign criminals

Even the immigration-control-obsessed 2007 UK Borders Act provides an exception (section 33(2)(a)) to the deportation of foreign criminals in cases where the removal of an individual would breach his or her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular the right to family and private life under Article 8. Before a decision for deportation was made, the individual’s rights would be weighed against the public interest on the basis of a five-stage test (the case of R (Razgar) v SSHD [2004] UKHL 27), normally by a panel of judges at a tribunal, covering a wide variety of factors (‘as varied as life itself’, lawyer Nick Nason sympathetically explains). These rules were swiftly changed, first by the executive in 2012 and then by the legislature in 2014, to limit the cases when individual rights would disable deportation, and to give decisively greater weight to the public interest.

Thus, a prison sentence of anything more than 12 months could justify interference with the rights of a foreign citizen to maintain his or her spousal or parental relationships in the UK, which would otherwise have been protected under human rights legislation. The Secretary of State’s practice to ‘certify’ these rights as ‘clearly unfounded’ (aka ‘deport now, appeal later’) aimed at ‘cracking down on the appeals conveyor belt used by criminals to delay their removal from the UK’, as then Immigration Minister James Brokenshire claimed after the practice was upheld at the court of appeal in 2015.

Disturbing stories began to emerge of petty criminals being ‘treated like animals’, apprehended when signing on with the Home Office and rushed on chartered flights to Jamaica at the break of dawn. Even as the Supreme Court ultimately ruled the system for deportation before appeal unlawful, the Windrush scandal followed in 2018, to illustrate the extreme extents to which Britain’s fascination with deportations had legitimised the practice.

What of EU criminals?

Interestingly, since 2014 an increasing number of EU nationals find themselves among the deported foreign criminals. This is somewhat surprising since EU law mandates a much higher level of protection against deportation for EU citizens than the domestic rules for other foreign criminals. This number is in addition to the homeless EU nationals deported from the UK on the basis of Home Office’s creative interpretation of EU Treaty rights as incompatible with homelessness. The removal of homeless EU nationals has fed into Britain’s own soul-searching over the enforcement of the 1824 Vagrancy Act continuing to criminalise homelessness and begging!

In favour of closure…

So Britain seems to have gone full circle from the days of the penal colonies and the deported mobile poor. It has effectively curtailed the rights of a particularly despicable group of migrants – foreign criminals – all the while making clear its displeasure with order-disturbing vagrants. Rather than looking at its own inequalities, it has chosen to tighten its physical and invisible borders. Brexit will inevitably bring further legal restrictions in the governance of migration. One can only surmise their impact on the public good of Britain after the EU.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. 

Dr Nevena Nancheva teaches Politics, International Relations and Human Rights at Kingston University London. She has studied EU migration to the UK since 2016, with a British Academy grant, building an academic network of scholars working on the topic. Her current research focuses on transnational identities and the marginalisation of migrants in the context of Brexit. This piece is based on a pilot study of EU nationals in detention with a view to family reunification and human rights protection.

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Book Review: Stretching the Constitution: The Brexit Shock in Historic Perspective by Andrew Blick

In Stretching the Constitution: The Brexit Shock in Historic PerspectiveAndrew Blick situates Brexit within the wider context of UK constitutional reform debates over the course of the past century. Blick’s unconventional approach to this topic is insightful, providing instructive historical context to contemporary discussions of Brexit that will be of particular value for scholars of constitutional affairs, writes Gary Wilson

Stretching the Constitution: The Brexit Shock in Historic Perspective. Andrew Blick. Hart. 2019.

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The phenomenon of Brexit has generated a considerable body of literature, much of which either seeks to understand the reasons why the UK voted to leave the European Union or assess the likely consequences of departure from the EU. Stretching the Constitution by Andrew Blick, a constitutional scholar, is refreshing in that it employs a unique approach by seeking to place Brexit within the wider context of constitutional reform debates going back over the course of the past century. The author begins from the non-controversial suggestion that the scale of the impact of Brexit has been considerable. The outcome of the 2016 referendum on EU membership immediately led to the resignation of one Prime Minister, has effectively derailed and destroyed the premiership of his successor and has produced major divisions within the two largest political parties – and the cabinet itself – over how to proceed. In addition, Brexit has resulted in challenges to the ultimate status of the UK as a constitutional entity and exacerbated deep divisions in public opinion.

Blick’s approach to making some sense of Brexit is grounded in a consultation of documentary materials which address some of the key constitutional themes that have surfaced during the Brexit debate, either explicitly or implicitly, the result being that Brexit is not regarded as an issue on its own but rather as part of a wider constitutional discussion. Part One of the book makes reference to textual material drawn from the period of Brexit itself, while in Part Two Blick considers aspects of related constitutional debates through the prism of earlier reform proposals produced over the course of the past century. In selecting his materials, the author is clear that he has sought to avoid official governmental or party political materials in order to maintain some objectivity.

The two chapters which comprise the first part of the book have a wide-ranging remit. In the first chapter, Blick draws upon reports of parliamentary select committees to gauge the lessons learnt from the referendum experience, while also touching upon constitutional issues which have arisen since, such as the role of the Supreme Court within the Brexit process, underlined by its ruling in the Gina Miller case. Chapter Two takes a step back to consider the debates which preceded the referendum, focusing on Parliament’s consideration of the 2015 EU Referendum Act which sanctioned its taking place.

Image Credit: Parliament Square (Leonard Bentley CC BY SA 2.0)

The major part of the book’s flesh is, however, found in the historical retrospect which runs through Part Two. Within these seven chapters, the author identifies and illuminates varied perspectives found in a range of historical writings and touches upon constitutional themes and issues, the significance of which have resurfaced against the backdrop of Brexit. A key point which quickly becomes apparent from this overview is the extent to which constitutional reform proposals advanced several decades – and, in some instances, a century – ago often inadvertently anticipated contemporary constitutional reform debates or continue to be relevant to shaping their parameters.

Given the end objective of those who support the Brexit agenda, Blick appropriately begins by surveying earlier perspectives on the shape and function of multi-state organisations, drawing upon works by L.S. Woolf, Friedrich Hayek, William Jennings and William Beveridge, who had advanced proposals for organisations which bore some features of the modern EU. By contrast, a far more recent plan of Brexit supporters Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan is considered, which sets out a vision of the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with other states.

The next two chapters address issues of democracy, focusing respectively on the referendum mechanism and representative democracy. The merits of using referendums within a representative democracy has been controversial in some quarters, although arguments for their use, similar to those advanced in support of the 2016 exercise, are found in earlier writings on the referendum mechanism. The shortcomings of the UK’s system of representative democracy have been highlighted both before and since the 2016 referendum. These must be seen within the context of debates over electoral reform and the redistribution of power within the UK. Again, earlier constitutional reform proposals can be employed to shed light upon some of these issues. Those surveyed within the book range from a 1911 proposal for the introduction of the single transferrable vote to unofficial Conservative proposals for House of Lords reform much earlier than those which the Labour government sought to effect in 1999. Earlier proposals for the decentralisation of power are also touched upon.

The following chapters are concerned with proposals for reform to Parliament, the territorial structure of the UK and the executive branch of government. The role of Parliament has been central to the Brexit process. While limitations in its operation have been illustrated by its inability to reach consensus on a form of leaving the EU acceptable to a majority of its members, concerns over its function are not new. The earlier reform proposals discussed by the author include the advancement of the case for the creation of sub-parliaments by Winston Churchill, amongst others.

To many minds, Brexit threatens the existence of the UK, while the 2016 referendum also gave rise to debates concerning the relative voice which its constituent parts might have within that process. The case for a federal UK is again revisited through the lens of earlier proposals. The varied reform suggestions pertaining to the executive range from those found in the writings of Arthur Ponsonby in respect of the scope for democratic control via the House of Commons, to foreign policy – particularly interesting in light of the extent to which the House has effectively curbed Government’s freedom of action in Brexit negotiations – to Harold Laski’s calls for reform of the civil service.

The final substantive chapter, titled ‘The Digital Constitution’, considers the relationship between digital technologies and democracy. While it is easy to see this as a modern challenge, with few lessons to be learnt from earlier writings, Blick manages to adduce works from HG Wells and others to bring historic perspectives to bear on this issue.

From his survey of earlier constitutional reform proposals, Blick reaches the conclusion that ‘historical analysis shows that the belief that democracy is in peril is far from new’. He questions the legitimacy of the Brexit process, acknowledging that it raised serious constitutional problems, while also noting that shortcomings within the UK’s system of democracy manifested during the Brexit debate have featured in past analysis. Some possible reforms are touched upon: for example, to the House of Lords as a second chamber capable of representing to the UK’s constituent parts and regions, and electoral reform to increase the democratic legitimacy of the UK’s political institutions. These are, however, couched within the context of earlier debates, which by its conclusion the book has clearly demonstrated are of great relevance to contemporary discussions surrounding constitutional reform.

This book is not perhaps one of the more conventional treatments of either Brexit or constitutional reform debates. That is, however, its main appeal. It is able to make an important contribution to the existing body of work within these fields precisely because it does not seek to replicate the usual approaches or discussions. The historical context provided to contemporary debates is insightful, but also very instructive in introducing the modern reader to materials of which they would in many instances have been ignorant or unaware. Anyone who purports to be a scholar of constitutional affairs should read Stretching the Constitution.

Note: This article is provided by our sister site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics.

Gary Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Law at Liverpool John Moores University. He specialises in collective security, the use of force and issues of secession and self-determination.

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The insecurity of a new no-deal Brexit Prime Minister

The economic consequences of the UK leaving the European Union without a deal have received significant attention, but a no-deal Brexit would also have important security implications. Helena Farrand Carrapico, Jocelyn Mawdsley and Richard G. Whitman explain what leaving the EU without a deal might mean for the UK’s internal and external security, as well as the country’s future security relationship with the EU.

The Conservative leadership race seems to be increasing the likelihood of a no deal Brexit. Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have made clear they are willing to contemplate a no deal Brexit on 31 October if a revised agreement cannot be reached with the EU on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal. And the EU’s member states have made clear that they are unwilling to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement reached with Theresa May’s Government.

The likely impacts of a no deal Brexit on the EU-UK economic relationship have been given significant attention with hair raising accounts of the probable effects on trade, borders, travel and UK manufacturing and services. However, the effects on the security interrelationship between the EU and the UK have been given much less prominence. Currently, as a member state, the UK is connected to the other EU member states through a variety of cooperation arrangements for internal security (on borders, policing and criminal justice) and external security (managing security threats from outside Europe and which include cooperation on conflict management and defence). A no deal Brexit means that this cooperation would be thrown into uncertainty.

Internal security

A no deal Brexit would have considerable impact on the UK’s internal security, in particular on police and judicial authorities’ capacity to address issues such as organised crime and terrorism, and on the UK’s role as a leading country in the area of security, including its ability to propose new instruments and shape EU decisions so as to align them with its national interests. In fact, one could even go as far as to say that a no deal Brexit constitutes a substantial threat to UK security given the current critical and unprecedented levels of organised crime activities, as well as the continued severe level of international and domestic terrorism.

Against a background of wide-ranging police cuts (namely the loss of 44,000 police officer jobs since 2010) and the accumulation of austerity effects, the rapidly growing levels of insecurity are having a clear impact on the everyday safety of the UK population, with serious and organised crime currently endangering more lives than any other national security threat. Given that these problems are transnational in nature, the key to addressing them lies on intelligence and information exchange, rather than on the reinforcement of borders as has been occasionally expressed.

The UK currently has access to a large number of EU instruments, databases and agencies that allow it to have direct access to crucial information, to exchange best practices and to coordinate strategies and operations with other EU member states. The most important instruments include, for instance, the European Arrest Warrant, the Schengen Information System, the European Criminal Record System, Europol and Eurojust, whose access is part of a carefully designed relationship that the UK has negotiated with the EU since the early 90s and which has allowed it to adopt a selective participation in the area of internal security.

Within this model, the UK has been able to take part in instruments that are aligned with its national interests, at the same time as it has been allowed to opt out from others it considers less useful (for a complete list of UK opt-ins and opt-outs from this area, please visit the UK Governments’ dedicated website). As the UK progressed through the negotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, its future security negotiation position also became clearer: it wishes to find alternatives to EU instruments that are capable of maintaining the same level of cooperation, in particular regarding data-driven law enforcement, practical assistance to operations, and multilateral cooperation through agencies.

A no deal scenario creates considerable uncertainty regarding the future UK-EU relationship as it implies a sudden loss of access to data and EU instruments, an abrupt interruption in cooperation, a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and a decrease in the levels of trust between the two sides.

Defence and security

As far as external security and defence consequences go, the immediate consequences of a no deal Brexit are less serious than the internal security ones. This is because the UK has already retreated from an active role in the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in preparation for Brexit, for example handing over the operational command of Operation Atalanta (that deals with the piracy threat in the Horn of Africa) and leaving the roster of EU Battlegroups (standby military forces that the EU keeps available for conflict management). Most military operational activity now is either bilateral with other member states or through NATO.

Helicopter refuelling at sea as part of Operation Atalanta, Credit: European Union Naval Force Somalia Operation Atalanta (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

However, anticipating Brexit the other EU member states have set an ambitious agenda for EU defence policy and with the UK having little say in its objectives. There are now well-advanced plans to develop more shared military research and development, defence industry collaboration and common defence procurement. All of these are for the purpose of giving the EU a greater military capability to act independently of other countries such as the U.S.

The foreign and trade policy consequences of a no deal Brexit have significant knock-on consequences for defence too. As far as trade policy is concerned, a no deal Brexit will have negative consequences for British manufacturing, including the space, aerospace and defence industries. Delays and additional costs to exports may endanger British firms’ participation in major international supply chains. This coupled with a significant gap between UK defence policy commitments and budgetary allocations makes the UK a less desirable and reliable partner for future multinational procurement projects as the FCAS developments have shown.

Indeed, the recklessness of a no deal Brexit, after three years of political turmoil, would send a bad signal to the UK’s partners about its reliability in security and defence matters. Already there seems to have been a cooling off of UK-French defence cooperation because of French concerns about UK reliability both in operational participation and defence industry cooperation.

Brussels re-set

A no deal Brexit has broader foreign and security policy consequences for the UK’s relationship with the EU. The UK’s internal security relationship with the EU’s member states would be thrown into significant uncertainly and with dislocating effects for the policing, information sharing and judicial cooperation relationships that are currently in place.

Even without a no deal Brexit EU member states have already created a blueprint for further security and defence integration that do not anticipate a significant role for the UK as a non-member state. The agenda for close and special partnership, provided for under the current Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration, would be in tatters. And the UK would be seen as unreliable partner unable and unwilling to deliver on security and defence cooperation.

A new EU leadership coming into office and coinciding with an October no deal Brexit may have no lived experience of the extensive contribution that the UK made to existing EU security and defence policies and capabilities. Their formative impression of the UK could be as a security challenge to be managed rather than an indispensable partner for security cooperation.

This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. It first appeared on our sister site EUROPP – European Politics and Policy.

Helena Farrand Carrapico is an Associate Professor in Criminology and International Relations at Northumbria University. She is on Twitter @hcarrapico

Jocelyn Mawdsley is a Senior Lecturer in European Politics at Newcastle University. She is on Twitter @JocelynMawdsley

Richard G. Whitman is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. He is on Twitter @RGWhitman

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Understanding Boris Johnson’s ‘retropian’ appeal to Conservatives

paul david beaumontThe election of Boris Johnson once again highlights the salience of nostalgia to the Brexit debate. This is more than a throwaway attack line, writes Paul David Beaumont (Norwegian University of Life Sciences). Drawing upon social psychology can provide the theoretical basis for why and how Johnson’s “retrotopian” rhetoric appeals to old, wealthy, and nationalist Brexiteers.

The election of Boris Johnson by the Conservative party membership should – but won’t – put to bed the popular hypothesis that Brexit was chiefly a rebellion by the ‘left-behind’ against the establishment. In this account, a combination of unchecked EU immigration and a decade of austerity had left great swathes of the working class, especially those in the North, in dire economic straits and angry at the establishment. The Brexit referendum was a welcome opportunity to take revenge. As a result, the last three years have seen  intrepid reporters voxpopping Wearsiders, with the subtext that these are the turkeys that voted for Christmas.

Yet the ‘left behinder’ thesis is at best partial. Indeed, one will not find many ‘left-behinders’ among the Tory party membership who selected Britain’s new Prime Minister. Johnson stood on the promise to Brexit, come what may. Indeed, the Tory membership offers a snapshot into the relatively wealthy, older, middle-England voter that seldom features on BBC news, yet also voted in high numbers to leave the EU.

The election of Boris Johnson also offers a timely excuse to revisit an article I wrote back in 2017: Brexit Retrotopia, and the Perils of Post-Colonial Delusions. As the title implies, it offers a plausible explanation for some of the reasons why this group voted Leave, and a why they are now doubling down on no-deal Brexit. The work sought to complement a number of quantitative studies that highlight how national identity and values are at least as important in driving Brexit as economic factors. However, I suggested that we needed to unpack the identity ‘variable’. After all, it is not a given that nationalists are Eurosceptic, and Britain has no monopoly on nationalism. Moreover, the EU is similarly bureaucratic, inefficient, and rule-imposing for other members, which begs the question of why Britain –  rather than say, Italy – chose to exit. (To be clear, I am not arguing that voting leave is irrational; there are plenty of good reasons to dislike the EU. Rather, it is an argument for why Euroscepticism has been especially strong in Britain.) Given this, a full explanation of how identity mattered to Brexit requires analysis of the quality of British nationalism: What is it about Britain’s identity narrative that made Brexit appeal to nationalists?

Drawing on social psychology, and a touch of Zygmunt Bauman, my article sought to add empirical and theoretic ballast to the now frequent refrain that nostalgia for Britain’s past informs Brexiteers’ plans for Britain’s future. Indeed, while Brexit baffles economists, social psychologists will not have been surprised to see Brexiteers risk diminished economic wellbeing for seemingly intangible identity reasons. Social identity theory (SIT) suggests that individuals are often willing to forgo economic gain in order to improve their social group’s status, enable positive comparisons with outgroups and thus generate pride and self-esteem. It should be immediately clear how provisionally SIT may relate to Brexit: voting Leave could be understood as a radical strategy for making their national social group more positively distinct from Europe. Yet as intuitively appealing as it appears, there is a snag with the standard SIT model’s applicability to Brexit. It is unclear why nationalists would consider Britain to compare poorly with other EU members in terms of what Brexiteers themselves considered important: ‘sovereignty‘. Britain enjoys bespoke treatment within the EU, unrivalled by other members: it has more opt-outs than any other member, and receives a rebate of approximately 66% of its annual net contribution. Britain, if anything, had privileged status in the EU.

While the standard SIT model founders, introducing a temporal dimension can help illuminate what underpins Brexiteers’ status concerns. An offshoot of the Social Comparison Theory that SIT is based upon, Temporal Comparison Theory (TCT), suggests that individuals do not just compare themselves to their peers but also to their former self’s status: people seek to maintain a coherent narrative of the self that shows self-improvement over time. When one struggles to make favourable comparisons with the past self, it can prompt low self-esteem in the same way that unfavourable comparisons to peers can. Scaling up this argument, Joshua Freedman has argued that China’s status dissatisfaction and subsequent status-seeking activities demands an understanding of how its identity narrative requires China to remedy its “century of humiliation”, and regain its former glory.

It should be clear by now that TCT is well placed to shed light on Brexit. If we assume that individuals often rest their self-esteem upon temporal comparisons with their social group’s former self, then what does this illuminate about Brexit? In short, my article suggested that two key features of Britain’s identity narrative make it particularly susceptible to Eurosceptic arguments. Because Britain’s mainstream national identity narrative relies upon glorifying its former empire (and lamenting its loss) together with fetishising the second world war, devolving power to the EU undermines nationalists’ sense of progression and self-esteem. To a country that once boasted (and still learns) how “the sun never set” on its empire, the EU’s practices of compromise compare poorly. Cooperation is easily presented as subordination.

Indeed, Britain’s present EU relationship – regardless of how much economically better off it may be than before, regardless of how much ‘more’ sovereignty it retains vis-à-vis its fellow members – seemingly turned Britain into a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker. Perhaps most ignominiously, from this perspective, Britain can be presented as having ceded power to the very countries it fought off in the second world war. All this enables Eurosceptic leaders to present a narrative of decline that calls for an urgent halt via Brexit. Indeed, Brexit embodies a vision that Zygmunt Bauman might have diagnosed as retrotopian: a nostalgic vision for the future based upon a lost but undead past. As such, the nature of the UK’s self-narrative – constantly reproduced via popular culture and the media — can thus help explain why arguments pertaining to “sovereignty” resonate so powerfully in the Brexit debate among older, wealthier, and more nationalistic Englishmen, who have certainly not been left behind.

While my article only provided provisional evidence supporting the plausibility of the thesis, two years on the argument appears to be holding up well. A growing body of research has fleshed out and nuanced the nostalgic underpinnings of Brexit and its post-colonial overtones. Meanwhile, second world war references continue to pepper Brexiteer discourse: scarcely a week goes by without a Brexiteer calling for Brits to reawaken the ‘spirit of Dunkirk’, rather than worry about the damage done by a no-deal Brexit. Perhaps most pertinently, Britain’s new PM Boris Johnson has risen to power on the back of almost cartoonish retrotopian appeal. Indeed, campaigning for Brexit, Johnson exhorted voters “to take the chains off the giant, unshackled Britannia and let the lion roar again!”, while his first speech as prime minister concluded with the call for Britain to “recover our natural and historic role”. As Edoardo Campanella put it in Foreign Policy, Johnson is “the ‘quintessentially nostalgic leader’.

It is certainly understandable that Johnson, and any state leader, wants their citizens to feel pride in their history. Indeed, glorifying the past can help solidify national cohesion; after all, if a nation is just a series of stories we tell about ourselves, why not make those stories good ones? The danger is when hubris based upon the past meets with the hard realities of the present. Little of what Johnson has said so far suggests he recognises the challenges that lie ahead either in renegotiating with the EU or in leaving without a deal. Indeed, Johnson’s claims that Brexit merely requires more ‘energy‘ and positive thinking resemble those of a self-help guru rather than a prime minister. It may well be exactly what Brexiteers would like to hear, but I doubt it will change either the EU’s calculus or soften the effects of a no-deal Brexit.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Paul David Beaumont is currently finalising his PhD dissertation, The Grammar of International Status Competition, at the Department of International Environmental and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He tweets @BeaumontPaul​.

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Boris Johnson’s real agenda: The ‘Singapore scenario’

While immediate political attention has focussed on urgent questions of how, when or if Britain’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, will succeed in taking the UK out of the EU, the longer-term agenda of a Johnson-led Conservative administration has been pushed into the background. This is unfortunate. Johnson’s dream, should his premiership survive, is of a post-Brexit Britain akin to a European ‘Singapore of the West’, writes Charles Woolfson (Linköping University). He cautions, however, that this ‘Singapore scenario’ leaves a lot to be desired.

In Johnson’s eyes and those of fellow ardent free-marketeers, a ‘Singapore scenario’ would be achieved by an ultra-business-friendly environment with low or zero corporation tax, low wages, weak trade unions, vestigial welfare provisions and a significant temporary migrant ‘non-citizen’ workforce (around 30 per cent of the total workforce), largely without the protection of national labour laws or access to welfare provisions.

Yet, as the Prime Minister of Singapore pointed out, the transposition of a Singaporean model to the UK is not so simple. Currently, the UK government spending on the public sector accounts for 40 to 45 per cent of the GDP, while for the Singaporean government it accounts for a mere 16 to 17 per cent of the GDP (Bloomberg News, 2018). Furthermore, the Singaporean economy, while ranking second in the World Bank index of 190 countries in terms of ‘ease of doing business’ (pro-business regulation), is also accompanied by powerful regulatory social controls and an extensive system of government patronage (Trading Economics, 2019). Social inequalities in Singapore are rising. A recent review of 157 countries in terms of commitment to reducing inequalities ranked Singapore overall at 149, among the 10 worst performers, and at 157 in terms of redistributive progressivity of tax policies (Development Finance International and Oxfam Report, 2018). Noting a decline in ranking since the previous year, the report concludes, ‘On labour, it (Singapore) has no equal pay or non-discrimination laws for women; its laws on both rape and sexual harassment are inadequate; and there is no minimum wage, except for cleaners and security guards’. As a prescription for a post-Brexit labour market, a ‘Singapore scenario’ leaves a lot to be desired.

None of this has dampened enthusiasm for turning Britain, free of European regulation, into some kind utopian free-market paradise. Johnson’s trademark rhetoric has consistently excoriated the EU for ‘trussing the nations together in a gigantic and ever-tightening cat’s cradle of red tape’. It was exemplified by Johnson’s theatrical appearance before the cheering Conservative Party faithful on the final leadership election hustings. Brandishing of all things, a kipper, Johnson claimed (incorrectly, as it happens) that ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ required that each kipper sent through the mail be accompanied by a coolant bag, an unnecessary and ludicrous burden on business.

There are echoes in Johnson’s buffoonery with the 1980s satirical BBC TV series, ‘Yes, Minister’. A 1984 Christmas special edition depicted an incompetent and opportunistic James Hacker as Minister heading the Department of Administrative Affairs, reluctant to sign a Xmas card to a Brussels Commissioner (one rather French-sounding ‘Maureece’ by name). In contention was a proposed Brussels directive to standardize the ‘EuroSausage’ and re-designate the ‘Great British Sausage’ as an unappetising ‘emulsified high-fat offal tube’. In the same election hustings speech, Johnson proclaimed, kipper to hand, ‘And when we come out, therefore, we will not only be able to take back control of our regulatory framework and end this damaging regulatory overkill but we will also be able to do things to boost Britain’s economy, which leads the world in so many sectors’ (New Statesman, 2019).

Hostility to EU regulation is merely a surrogate target for hostility to regulation in general, seen as holding back burgeoning British free enterprise. To realise full ‘regulatory divergence’ from EU controls (the glittering prize of a no-deal Brexit), Johnson has now proposed the creation of free economic zones or free ports, offering lower import taxes and customs tariffs, favourable manufacturing locations, and looser regulation to lure investment in up to 10 ports around the country. These free ports will be situated mainly in declining and ‘left-behind’ areas such as Teeside. Such zones are not specifically precluded by EU regulations, although it is true to say that they are regarded by the Commission as potential havens for counterfeiting goods and money laundering. In fact, over 80 exist within the EU, the majority in the newer member states of Eastern Europe. Besides providing free-enterprise zones where capitalism can be let loose to do what it does best, their attractiveness for employers is that they are typically insulated from employment protection and minimum wage legislation, while collective bargaining and trade union representation are generally non-existent. Free ports are ‘the Singapore scenario made real’ in the UK context. They will be the forward positions in a greater national project of wholesale deregulation accompanied by comprehensive labour subordination, UK-apore as one big free port.

The post-Brexit foreign trade and investment environment

Ironic, therefore, is the announcement by Brexit-supporting Sir James Dyson, one of Britain’s most celebrated entrepreneurs of the relocation of his corporate headquarters from England to Singapore. This comes only a few months after a previously announced ongoing UK investment programme, much welcomed by Theresa May, and portrayed as a sign of business confidence in Britain’s post-Brexit future. For Dyson, the business logic is presumably compelling. While preserving his UK sites, the company already has manufacturing and new R&D facilities in Singapore, in part following a previous relocation from the UK. The Singapore investment is proximate to profitable East Asian markets for his luxury products, not to mention providing a suitable base for Dyson’s new plan to develop electrical automotives. Not least, however, the move to Singapore potentially offers zero corporation tax. A further incentive is access to labour markets in the East Asia region providing both compliant and relatively cheap human resources when compared to the UK. Dyson Ltd presents a paradigmatic example of ‘foot-loose’ capital investment shopping for regulatory regime advantage in a globalised ‘race to the bottom’. As a pointer to the investment potential of a post-Brexit Britain, Dyson’s decision is ominous.

An additional dimension to the post-Brexit competitive challenges facing the UK economy is the fate of existing foreign direct investment. Japan, for example, is a significant investor in the UK. Nissan, Toyota, and Hitachi between them account for 40 billion pounds (nearly half of Japanese direct investment intended for the EU in 2015 and 144,000 UK manufacturing jobs. Japanese business has sought reassurances that the UK will remain in the European customs union and single market, a demand that is profound anathema to Johnson.

In or out of the single market and customs union, the fact is that the EU is itself remoulding the global trade and investment environment through an extensive series of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), several of which it was hoped would be with potential trading partners for the new ‘Global Britain’. Recent among these is the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) of 2017. This will remove nearly all significant tariff barriers to trade. While the UK has already one of the least regulated labour markets in the EU, such agreements place further competitive pressure on a post-Brexit UK to show even greater ‘flexibility’ on labour and other standards. It is pressure to downgrade that will surely intensify as the UK government embarks on the mammoth task of ‘replicating’ forty years of existing European trade deals or tries its unskilled hand at forging new ones. If preliminary exchanges with the US regarding food safety standards in a future trade deal (specifically, the acceptability of chlorine-washed chicken) are anything to go by, the prospects are not enticing.

Labour migration: an unresolved contradiction

Theresa May’s successful wooing of Nissan investment in Sunderland may prove to have been only a temporary demonstration of foreign investor confidence in the future of the UK economy. As the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned, ‘Japanese businesses rely on inexpensive labour from Eastern Europe in the manufacturing and agricultural industries in the UK’.

Labour migration, the toxic driver of the Brexit debate, will present unique challenges to a free-market Johnson government, not least as its internal logic would suggest a more liberal and open regime. Migration, therefore, presents an unresolved contradiction at the heart of the ‘UK-apore’ project. To appease his core supporters it is more than likely that Johnson’s government will be forced, reluctantly or otherwise, to replicate much of the exclusionary path towards continued free movement of labour that informed the policies of his predecessor.

As Central-Eastern European migrants return home, (or refuse to come to the UK for the wages and conditions on offer) both of which increasingly they appear to be doing, UK nationals will need to be ‘persuaded’ to accept those low-paid ‘3D’ (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning) jobs that they had previously rejected. The ‘Singapore scenario’ applied to the UK would mandate a downgrading of current welfare and labour standards in a massive recalibration of labour expectations of the domestic labour force. Such a recalibration would be achieved by a radical shrinking of what remains of the welfare state, combined with a raft of ‘incentives’ to accept whatever jobs are on offer.

Questions of the downside of globalisation are not new but much accentuated by Britain’s current precarious political and economic conjuncture as it departs from the EU. In short, Boris Johnson’s ‘UK-apore’ can only be realised in a ‘race to the bottom’ to the significant detriment of existing standards. If the business model of labour and welfare devaluation in a ‘Singapore scenario’ is the pathway towards Britain’s economic salvation, then such standards now become integral to the democratic politics of post-Brexit Britain.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image by David RussoSome rights reserved.

Charles Woolfson is Professor emeritus of Labour Studies at the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO), Linköping University, Sweden. Since arriving in Sweden in 2009 after a decade of residency in the Baltic states, he has written on East-West migration from the newer EU member states, and on the impacts of radical austerity programmes in the Baltics following the crash of 2008. He co-edited with Jeffrey Sommers, The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-Economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model, Routledge, 2014.

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Cabinet reconstruction: the calculations and risks behind Johnson’s ‘second-chance’ government

Nicholas Allen offers an in-depth analysis of Boris Johnson’s new cabinet and places the reshuffle in a historical context. He writes that the new prime minister has made the parliamentary arithmetic even less favourable to his Brexit plans, and explains why the reshuffle indicates that there may be another general election sooner rather than later.

Boris Johnson has finally achieved his lifelong ambition by becoming prime minister. The ensuing reshuffle or reconstruction of the Tory government was remarkable. Of the 27 ministers who attended Theresa May’s last cabinet, only 11 would be invited to attend Johnson’s first.

Forming a cabinet is a challenging business. New prime ministers need to reward supporters, appease or punish rivals and give posts to those with appropriate abilities, seniority and, on occasion, policy preferences. They also need to be mindful of their cabinet’s overall gender, race, regional and factional balance. And the overwhelming majority of their appointments must be drawn from a relatively small talent pool: their party’s MPs. The challenges facing ‘take-over’ prime ministers are even greater. Unlike their counterparts who first take office after winning a general election, take-over prime ministers have had no time to develop their team in opposition. Their government must be an iteration of their predecessor’s choices.

Johnson’s response on taking office was to conduct a wholesale purge of his predecessor’s appointees. Newspapers portrayed the clearout as ‘carnage’ and a ‘massacre’. In practice, not every departure was a clear-cut dismissal or, in a few cases, resignation. The extent to which ministers leave office involuntarily or voluntarily is a matter of degree. Some ministers choose to go knowing a prime minister is about to sack them, others leave after being offered a lesser post in an almost calculated snub.

For example, both David Liddington, sometimes referred to as Theresa May’s de facto deputy, and Chris Grayling, her transport secretary, in all likelihood chose to resign in anticipation of being dismissed. Jeremy Hunt, May’s foreign secretary and Johnson’s erstwhile rival for the Tory leadership, chose to leave rather than accept a demotion.

Only three members of May’s cabinet publicly announced in advance their refusal to serve under Johnson: her chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, her justice secretary, David Gauke, and her international development secretary, Rory Stewart. They may well have expected the sack but they also took clear positions against the new prime minister and his willingness to countenance a no-deal Brexit.

Johnson’s reconstruction in historical perspective

If we exclude these three individuals, Johnson’s cabinet reconstruction involved the dismissal of no fewer than 14 ministers (including pre-emptive and forced resignations). As the table below illustrates, he stands out as the most brutal of the eight post-war take-over prime ministers. Only Theresa May comes close: she dismissed 13 members of David Cameron’s cabinet when she took office. The next bloodiest purge was Gordon Brown’s in 2007, when he sacked seven of Blair’s cabinet ministers.

The table also reports two other measures of disruption: the new cabinet’s ‘political continuity’—the proportion of members who sat in the outgoing cabinet—and its ‘portfolio continuity’—the proportion of members in the new cabinet who held the same job in the old cabinet. These measures confirm just how extensive Johnson’s reconstruction was. The ‘political continuity’ between May’s and Johnson’s cabinet was comfortably the lowest of the eight prime ministers. Just one-third of ministers attending his cabinet attended May’s. In contrast, all other incoming prime ministers since 1945 retained at least half of the old cabinet in one job or another.

The low continuation in Johnson’s case is partly the result of Johnson’s butchery, and partly the result of his decision to increase the number of ministers attending cabinet. Whereas 18 ministers formally attended Anthony Eden’s new cabinet, no fewer than 33 attended Johnson’s. Britain’s supreme collective decision-making body has almost doubled in size since 1955.

Only in respect of ‘portfolio continuity’ was Johnson’s reconstruction not the most disruptive. Instead it was the second-most disruptive after Brown’s in 2007. Six ministers attending May’s cabinet retained their posts under Johnson, including the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd (although she also gained the women and equalities remit), the leader of the Lords, Baroness Evans, the health and social care secretary, Matthew Hancock, the Welsh secretary, Alun Cairns, and the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox.

What to make of the new cabinet?

What was the purpose such an extensive purge of Theresa May’s ministers? The first and most obvious answer is that it was clearly meant to signal a break with her government and failed Brexit strategy. It was also a very brutal assertion of prime ministerial power. Ministers who are not with him—personally or ideologically—can now consider themselves dispensable.

A second and related answer is that Johnson now has a cabinet that is in accord with his commitment to risk a no-deal Brexit if he cannot renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union. He has created space around the cabinet table to bring in, or back, a number of committed no-dealers, including Priti Patel, the new home secretary, and Theresa Villiers, the new environment secretary, who took a prominent role in the 2016 Leave campaign.

From Johnson’s point of view, the new cabinet establishes his credentials with the EU as a prime minister who is serious about leaving without a deal. It also lessens the threat from the Tory hard-Eurosceptic right. Jacob Rees-Mogg, former chair of the European Research Group, can no longer snipe from the sidelines. He is the new leader of the Commons.

Johnson’s approach also reduces the prospects of any cabinet resignations down the line if there is a no deal. Jo Johnson, the new universities minister, who quit May’s government in 2018 because he opposed Brexit and wanted another referendum, has presumably reconciled himself with his brother’s worldview. Blood, it seems, is thicker than principle.

Second chances and chancing an election

There are three additional points worth making about Johnson’s new cabinet. The first concerns the number of what might be called cabinet retreads: ministers who have previously attended cabinet. If Andrew Bonar Law appointed the ‘second-eleven’ government in 1922—so-called because several of the most prominent Tories refused to serve—Johnson has appointed a second-chance government.

In addition to the prime minister, who resigned as foreign secretary in July 2018 in opposition to the Chequers agreement, and his brother, the new cabinet contains three other ministers who quit in protest at May’s Brexit strategy: Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom, and Esther McVey. It also sees the return of Nicky Morgan and Theresa Villiers, who were sacked in 2016 by Theresa May.

More controversially, the new cabinet contains three retreads whose careers were previously interrupted by scandal: Patel, who was sacked as international development secretary in 2017 for breaching the ministerial code; Gavin Williamson, who was sacked as defence secretary following a leak from the National Security Council earlier this year; and Grant Shapps, who resigned from Cameron’s government in 2015 over allegations about bullying in the Tory party.

Readmitting to the fold ministers tainted by scandal can be a potentially risky business. On the one hand, a lack of political judgement—an enduring defect in a minister—may have been a factor in their initial departure. On the other hand, the media may well subject these individuals to even greater scrutiny, potentially increasing their chances of being caught out over even the most minor transgression.

The second point about the new cabinet concerns its orientation to Brexit. Reaching out to Tories opposed to a no-deal is seemingly not Johnson’s priority. Instead, he has used his powers to create a government that is fully committed to leaving the EU by 31 October. It is entirely consistent with a strategy to appeal to supporters of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

The third point is the parliamentary challenges created by the reconstruction. May took office as the head of a divided party with a wafer-thin parliamentary majority. Johnson takes office as the head of an even more divided party with no parliamentary majority.

Johnson has now sent a number of senior politicians to the backbenches, some of whom, like Hammond, have already promised to oppose a no-deal Brexit, others who may now hold a grudge. The new prime minister has made the parliamentary arithmetic even less favourable to his long-term plans. Just as he wants to win back support from the Brexit Party, his reshuffle seems to have been based on an assumption that there may be a general election rather sooner than later.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. The post appeared first on LSE British Politics and Policy. Featured image credit: Chatham House under a CC BY 2.0 licence.

Nicholas Allen is Reader in Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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Only a new unity government can effectively avert a no-deal Brexit

If the UK is not to crash out of the European Union with no deal, Jonathan Boston (LSE) argues that the previous one-party political control of the executive will need to be temporarily suspended. There is a clear majority view of the House of Commons that any withdrawal from the EU must be an agreed and orderly one, with clear succession arrangements in place. But, from where we are now, making that will effective presents unique challenges that necessitate a unique solution.

Preventing a no-deal Brexit, whether on 31 October or subsequently, may well require the formation of a multiparty government comprising MPs from across the House of Commons under the leadership of a new Prime Minister. Such a government would need to take office before the end of October. Necessarily, it would be a relatively temporary arrangement. But it would need to govern long enough to avert a no-deal Brexit, not only on 31 October but also subsequently. Undoubtedly, forming such a government would be extraordinarily difficult politically, but not impossible.

There are compelling political, economic, security, and constitutional reasons to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Currently, a majority of MPs oppose such an outcome. Polling also suggests that most citizens reject this option. But the government led by Boris Johnson appears willing to take the country ‘over the cliff’. Against this ‘backdrop’, recent authoritative analyses by Vernon Bogdanor and Professor David Howarth highlight the many obstacles facing MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit.

Potentially, a majority of MPs could defeat the current government on a vote of no-confidence, moved by the Leader of the Opposition, to precipitate an early election. But unless Parliament ensures that the election is held during mid-to-late October rather than November, an early poll might not avert a no-deal outcome. Moreover, the Conservatives might secure an overall parliamentary majority in an autumn poll on a pledge to leave the EU without a deal. In this event, the strategy of voting down the government to avert a no-deal Brexit would have failed.

Alternatively, the election might generate yet another hung Parliament, precipitating further years of Brexit-induced governmental paralysis. For such reasons, if the fundamental and overriding objective is to prevent a no-deal Brexit (whether on 31 October or subsequently), triggering an early election is a high-risk, and probably flawed, strategy. Aside from this, it would generate enormous internal tensions for both major parties.

Rather than pursuing a vote of no-confidence, MPs opposed to a no-deal Brexit might employ other parliamentary tactics. For instance, they could endeavour to enact legislation requiring the government to: a) seek a further extension to Article 50; b) prevent Britain leaving the EU without a negotiated deal; or c) hold a second referendum on EU membership. But all such options are fraught with difficulties. Above all, they might simply precipitate the Prime Minister moving a motion in the House to call an early election under Section 2(2) of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. Most Labour MPs would doubtless feel obliged to support such a motion, thus guaranteeing the Prime Minister his required two-thirds majority. But, as argued above, an early election is no sure way to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Accordingly, MPs opposing such an outcome must avoid tactical moves that play into the Prime Minister’s hands.

Getting to a new majority government

If an early election and/or parliamentary tactics of various kinds are high-risk strategies, realistically the only option is to replace the current government with a new one. Admittedly, this would be extremely challenging politically. It would require formidable strategising, organising and tactical skills and unprecedented inter-party cooperation.

Constitutionally, forming such a government would require the active support (or, in some cases, at least acquiescence) of a plurality of MPs, all with varying political goals, party loyalties, personal agendas, and career ambitions. More specifically, the MPs would need to reach agreement on: a) an acceptable candidate for Prime Minister; b) the composition of the cabinet and the allocation of key portfolios; c) a viable short-term policy agenda; and d) an agreed political strategy, especially for resolving the Brexit impasse. Each of these steps would be complicated with competing political pressures and difficult trade-offs. Bear in mind, too, that forming such a government would occur almost certainly in the face of strenuous opposition from the majority of Conservative MPs, the DUP, and no doubt some Labour and independent MPs, not to mention a largely hostile media.

Whether or not such a scenario is feasible, the following considerations deserve mention. For the Queen to appoint a new Prime Minister, the House of Commons would need to provide an unequivocal signal, perhaps through a vote of confidence or an unambiguous resolution, that it supported a named candidate other than the current PM. Such a signal would require the support of a significant number of Conservative MPs, possibly 30-60 depending on the stance of some Labour MPs and independents. But who would such MPs be willing to support as Prime Minister? Presumably, Jeremy Corbyn can be ruled out. Equally, sufficient Labour MPs are unlikely to countenance another government led by a Conservative MP (e.g. Kenneth Clarke or Rory Stewart). But what about a Labour MP, such as Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper or Sir Keir Starmer? If not, would a LibDem MP (e.g. Sir Vince Cable) or an independent MP command support? If none of these options is acceptable to sufficient MPs, a multiparty government could not be formed. Arguably, this is the Achilles’ heel of an alternative government.

Next, a new government would need to agree upon a democratically acceptable solution to the Brexit impasse and have the capacity and time to implement the preferred approach. Merely installing a new Prime Minister for a few weeks or months to prevent a no-deal Brexit on 31 October and facilitate an autumn general election would be unwise. Indeed, a general election held under such circumstances might well guarantee the very outcome that those opposed to a no-deal Brexit are seeking to prevent. Above all, it would provide Boris Johnson (who by then would be the Leader of the Opposition) with an ideal platform. He could cast himself as the champion of the people against the supposedly unconstitutional and anti-democratic antics of a recalcitrant Parliament dominated by remainers. At the same time, the new government would need to commit publicly to holding a general election as soon as practicable after the Brexit impasse has been resolved. This would be essential to maintain adequate parliamentary support and appease angry pro-Brexit voters.

Resolving the Brexit issue with a two-stage referendum

How then might the Brexit impasse be addressed? Given the difficulties, Parliament has faced in finding an acceptable solution, and the risks associated with an autumn election, a second referendum on EU membership may be the only option. But to be politically acceptable and legitimate – and for the result to be durable – such a referendum would need to be well-constructed, properly conducted, and enable the will of the people to be expressed clearly and decisively. In effect, this means the referendum questions must be unambiguous, with sufficient choice to enable the public to express its preferences.

The experience of electoral reform in New Zealand in the early 1990s provides possible lessons. In this instance, citizens voted on a series of questions in a two-stage referendum process. During the first stage, voters were given the option of retaining the first-past-the-post electoral system or embracing a different system. Next, on the same ballot paper, they were asked to choose between one of four options for electoral reform. In the event, there was a decisive majority to change the electoral system and a similarly clear majority for a mixed-member system of electoral reform (similar to the German model). At the second stage, held the following year, voters were asked to choose between the mixed-member system (as drafted by Parliament in detailed legislation) and the existing electoral system. The majority of voters supported reform.

Applied to the UK context, a second referendum process could proceed as follows. First, citizens would vote on whether to remain in the EU or leave. Next, on the same ballot paper, they would be asked to choose between one of several specific options for leaving (e.g. perhaps the Norwegian model, continued membership of the customs union, or no-deal). Then, if the majority of voters chose in the first round to leave the EU, the preferred option for exiting would be run off against remaining in the EU. Under this approach, few could claim that their preferences had been ignored or that the ‘establishment’ had ‘fixed’ the result.

Although highly unlikely, the majority of citizens might vote to leave the EU and to do so without a deal. In this event, the new government would have failed to realise its core objective. But at least a no-deal Brexit would then occur in the context of a clear democratic mandate and with a proper understanding of the likely implications – something which the 2016 referendum failed to ensure.


The most effective strategy to avert a no-deal outcome, whether on 31 October, or at a later date would be for MPs to form a new multiparty government – a coalition for unity and stability committed to retaining office long enough to enable the current Brexit impasse to be resolved in a manner both constitutionally robust and democratically legitimate. Forming and maintaining parliamentary support for such a government poses formidable challenges. It will require remarkable leadership, significant organisational skills, and substantial political sacrifices. In particular, enough MPs must be willing to place the public interest and democratic values ahead of narrow party loyalties. Is this scenario plausible? If the answer is negative, the nation faces a grim future.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image by Suzy Dubot (

Jonathan Boston is Professor of Public Policy in the School of Government, at the Victoria University of Wellington, and an expert on the New Zealand constitution and Westminster systems more broadly. Jonathan is currently visiting LSE’s Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR).

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To deal or not to deal: these are the questions

Why is the new government prepared to countenance no deal, when it would be so damaging to Britain? Iain Begg (LSE) says the question is not whether but how much it would harm the country.

To judge by the early pronouncements of the Johnson government, a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is not only worth contemplating, but could well occur. Although both sides continue to profess their hope – and expectation – that a withdrawal agreement can be negotiated, the risks have plainly increased, despite Johnson’s bold assessment of there being a one in a million chance of a no-deal Brexit.

His stance is belied by the ramping-up of no-deal preparations and a statement in the Sunday Times on 28 July from Michael Gove (now charged, as Cabinet Office Minister, with over-seeing a possible exit without a deal) that: “no deal is now a very real prospect, and we must make sure that we are ready”. For several ministers, it appears, no-deal is now the working assumption.

Manifestly, after the bluster and increasingly exaggerated claims made during the Tory leadership campaign, the reluctance of the EU to re-open negotiations on a withdrawal deal is now being taken seriously. Gove is one of a small number of senior ministers assigned to a new cabinet committee charged with accelerating no-deal preparations. The EU Exit Strategy Committee (its beguiling shorthand code is ‘XS’) is to be chaired by the Prime Minister, with Gove as Deputy Chair, and will meet frequently to review progress. Intriguingly, two-thirds of the May government’s cabinet committees have been culled, leaving just six, of which three have the word ‘exit’ in their title.

Leaving aside the vexed matter of whether the only ‘pure’ Brexit is one which extricates the UK fully from the EU prior to negotiating some form of future relationship, several questions about the new willingness to countenance no-deal need to be answered.

First, what does no-deal mean in practice? The simplest answer is “not Theresa May’s deal”, or being prepared to walk away if all that is on offer is one on broadly similar terms. What was thrice rejected by the House of Commons covered citizens’ rights on both sides, settlement of financial accounts and, especially, arrangements to ensure no hard border in Ireland, thereby reconciling Brexit with the commitments made under the Good Friday Agreement.

These three components are the EU’s pre-conditions for moving on to negotiations on a subsequent deal to redefine the relationship between the EU and the UK, yet in all the recent talk of no-deal, this has barely surfaced. Hence, a second question is how no-deal now would influence the future relationship. The most plausible answer is adversely, especially if it were accompanied by equivocation over the UK’s willingness to honour its EU budget commitments.

Third, what would the consequences be for the Irish border? No-deal would mean the UK leaving the EU customs union and, necessarily, different trading regimes applying in the two parts of Ireland, yet all sides have committed to avoid border controls. This is why the backstop was devised. The ironic outcome of no-deal could be the hard border no-one wants; vague promises of (untried) technological solutions will not do.

What about the economy?

A fourth set of questions concern the aggregate macroeconomic effect of a no-deal Brexit, and its implications for particular sectors of the economy and UK public finances. There will also be an economic impact on the EU27, with member states trading most intensively with the UK – Ireland in particular – most affected.

The answer from external analysts, such as the IMF, is unambiguous: no-deal will damage the British economy and is a risk for the global economy. Even if similar analyses by the likes of the Bank of England are summarily dismissed on the (disturbingly spurious) grounds of pro-EU bias, the same conclusion has been drawn by all but a tiny minority of commentators.

Studies looking at the effects on the EU27 – for example by Goldman Sachs – suggest the aggregate effect could be a little greater than for the UK, but relative to the size of the respective economies, the magnitude would be five times as great for the UK. The car industry – a major UK exporter – would be profoundly hit, as would certain agricultural producers, such as Welsh hill farmers.

Much the same is true of the public finances. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), in its 2019 Fiscal Risks Report, uses the IMF scenario as a basis for estimating the fiscal consequences of no-deal. As the OBR puts it, the scenario “is not necessarily the most likely outcome and it is relatively benign compared to some”, but it would nevertheless add £30 billion a year to public debt from the 2020-21 fiscal year onwards. By fiscal year 2023-24, public debt will have increased by 12 percentage points of GDP, undoing the effects of the last decade of austerity and pushing debt well above the level reached in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The OBR states that a more disorderly Brexit “could hit the public finances much harder”.

Inevitably, such estimates are condemned by pro-Brexit optimists as the latest manifestation of “project fear”, usually citing in evidence the recession predicted by the Treasury that did not happen after the referendum. But it is disingenuous to regard any economic assessment of anything to do with Brexit as inherently flawed or misleading. Projections are subject to margins of error, but hardly anyone doubts no-deal will hit the economy. The double question for those relaxed about no-deal is not “whether” the economy will be hit, but “how much?” and “for how long?”.

The political implications of no-deal

One of the obvious attractions of a hard deadline for Brexit is to enable the country to move on and to start focusing on what many see as the real problems of our economy and society. But in the latest of a series of analyses of no-deal, Anand Menon observes “whatever the superficial, intuitive attraction, no-deal will not make it easier to focus on other things. On the contrary, it will make it harder”.

This brings us to questions about UK politics and governance. The prospect of no-deal has already elicited strong objections from the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers, and who knows how it could affect the delicate politics of Northern Ireland. For the Conservative Party, the exile of so many prominent ministers from the May government to the backbenches portends trouble which could metamorphose into a fresh contest between parliament and the government.

Meanwhile there is a growing recognition in the Labour party of the damage being done by the weak and indecisive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Labour is performing badly in the polls at a time when it ought to be prospering, given the disarray in the Conservative party, while the case for a softer Brexit (or none at all) is being inadequately put. At the end of July, one party grandee, Peter Mandelson, openly called for Corbyn to go. The wonder is that it has taken so long.

Without persuasive answers to the many questions about what will happen if a mutually satisfactory withdrawal deal cannot be secured, the UK would face great uncertainty. As should be repeated and repeated again, no-deal would not result in the maintenance of the status quo, but a fundamental shift in how the country relates to the rest of the world. It would also affect how many domestic policies, from agriculture to anti-terrorism, are conducted, because policies and regulatory arrangements would have to be recast, potentially in a disorderly manner.

Summing up, the most telling question is why the Johnson government would knowingly plump for a no-deal expected to have an adverse effect on the UK economy, to foment division inside the UK, to raise the prospect of a break-up of the Union, and to pose an existential threat to the Conservative party? The most benign answer is that is a bluff designed to put pressure on the EU.

Granted, no-deal might further discomfit the Labour party and pave the way for a Tory general election win, but are these valid justifications? The more worrying explanation, however effective the preparations are to limit the damage, is that the new government has failed to think through the consequences and has allowed its zeal to deliver the referendum result to trump (to coin a phrase) its judgment.

Let’s hope the remaining grown-ups dotted around the green benches of the House of Commons can find the parliamentary wherewithal to stop this folly.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It first appeared at the Dahrendorf Forum blog.

Professor Iain Begg is the Academic Co-Director of the Dahrendorf Forum and Co-Chair of the Dahrendorf Working Group “The Future Of European Governance”. He is also a Professorial Research Fellow in the European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Long read | It’s the English, stupid! Brexit is an expression of English nationalism

It’s the English, stupid! Hudson Meadwell (McGill University) writes that the national structure of the UK and Britain, and the political organisation and expression of that structure, are keys to understanding Brexit.

Brexit is an English-centric phenomenon in which Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales appear as complications or afterthoughts. The sole constitutional voices in the Brexit process are English-dominated, first in the referendum itself, which aggregated the vote across national jurisdictions and in Parliament. Neither Northern Ireland, nor Scotland nor Wales are constitutionally empowered to express a voice on the matter of EU membership.

However, English political dominance is not something which can be directly acknowledged in political discourse. The language used by Donald Cameron and Theresa May in their letters, eighteenth months apart, to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, shows some of the political equivocations that result. Cameron’s letter opens under the heading, “A New Settlement for the United Kingdom” and then twice refers to the ‘British people’. May opens her letter with reference to the ‘people of the United Kingdom’ and then presents the referendum as a ‘vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination’. These brief quotations should show just how slippery these signifiers are. The United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland but Northern Ireland is not British. Indeed, the notion of the ‘United Kingdom’ was repurposed in the 1920s in order to recognize the reality of Irish partition. May never refers to the British people but she does invoke national self-determination. Later, she again makes reference to the ‘people of the United Kingdom’ But to which nation is she referring; whose self-determination is she signifying? Is this just loose, sloppy language?

These kinds of ambiguities and equivocations in expression, in important documents written both to your negotiating adversary as well for a larger political audience, are revealing and call out for some diagnosis. Perhaps the political unconscious is slipping out. Or are we looking at strategically ambiguous political rhetoric embedded in plans, the elements of which are not self-evident in these documents? These are hard questions, in any case, particularly so here, when there is relatively little material, primary or secondary, to work with.

So, how to proceed? I’ll advance a conjecture related to nationalism. If anything can be taken for granted and thus draw some of its force from its unarticulated everydayness and be articulated and enacted in a political plan, it’s nationalism. Nationalism, as some of its theorists suggest, can be both banal and a self-conscious political project. That’s not a contradiction, it is a measure of the sources of nationalism’s social and political force.[1]

Hence the conjecture: Brexit is an expression of nationalism. Between Cameron and May in their letters, the latter is much more explicit, as she tried to invoke the legitimating power of national self-determination. But which nationalism? Who is more likely going to slip into the mentality that confuses their nation with ‘Britain’ or the United Kingdom?

This is a nationalist conceit but whose? It’s not the Scots, nor is it the Irish, or the Welsh. It’s the English.[2]That’s fully compatible with the recurring theme of English exceptionalism in British history, which takes English dominance (if not superiority) as a natural birthright.[3] After all, who incorporated who?

That birthright has been challenged at different historical points, and each challenge marks an important political crisis. English identity has proven fairly resilient but each crisis has left its mark. English dominance is not as natural a birthright as it used to be.

Irish resistance and eventually revolution still casts a long shadow in the form of Irish partition, even if England retained its dominant position in what is now known as the United Kingdom. In hindsight, partition perhaps bought England some (considerable) time but it looks now like that particular colonial legacy has come home to roost. Northern Ireland, drawing indirect and direct support from the EU and Ireland, and despite the support the Democratic Unionist Party has provided the Conservatives in Westminster, is now limiting England’s political degrees of freedom, much to the chagrin of Brexiteers.

Scotland is no longer particularly tractable and successfully induced the English to concede an elected assembly and, not long after, a first referendum on independence. This may be more a running problem than a crisis, if you prefer your crises to be episodic; nonetheless, the Scottish question will be part of the calculations of the Conservative government in their negotiations, up to and after the run-up to October 31, of a Labour government in the event of an electoral defeat of the Conservatives, at some point, whether post-Conservative transition or post-withdrawal and, naturally, of the SNP. There is no resolution of the Scottish question in sight.

Then there are the cumulative long-run effects of the rise of American power culminating in its post-1945 hegemony, the loss of blue-sea colonies, and more recently, the incremental deepening and enlargement of the EEC/EU after British entry. All of this changed the international standing of Britain and the UK and their imperial core – England.

English dominance thus is vulnerable: There are standing internal challenges to the borders of the political shells it maintains, and membership in the EU threatens its ability to control these interior spaces through the British parliament. These challenges can work in tandem as well as separately. ‘Scotland in Europe’ captures dramatically the instrumental relationship between Scotland’s national aspirations and EU institutions. Both the EU and Ireland have tangible stakes in Northern Ireland.

England has seen off various challenges to its dominance but its day of reckoning does seem to be drawing closer. It’s now much harder to separate challenges and deal with them as one-offs.

However, imperial cores don’t often reform themselves in the aftermath of empire. The current imbroglio does not look like the expression of a politically-healthy ruling class. There is no appetite for reform in the English ruling class. It’s a little like watching for regime change in autocratic contexts, looking for signs of a crack in the regime and the emergence of challengers to its hardliners. But there is not much sign of this in the party system, at least not yet.

The Conservative Party appears now all in for withdrawal, although it has been debating different scenarios. However, some of these scenarios are contrived. The Conservative party does not hold many cards, now that an agreement has been negotiated and ratified by one of the two parties in the negotiation.

On the other side of the House, the main political alternative – Labour – has been, at best, ambivalent about EU membership in the run-up to Brexit and afterwards. We can’t really say that Brexit has polarized the two major parties until relatively recently, as its leader pledged to support Remain in the event of a new referendum. Yet this was a rather half-hearted, rather than fully-voiced position. It likely will be overwhelmed by internal party division.

Labour is led by a longtime MP and activist who came to political maturity in pre-Thatcher Britain in a period in which (‘old’) Labour had not fully cast off its dream of ‘socialism in one country’. Membership in the EEC/EU, and the long march of English and British political history may not have put fully paid to that dream (even a weaker version of it) in Labour. Hence, withdrawal could be seen as an opportunity to return to roads not taken. That is also quite consistent with the general argument on the left that the EU is a neo-liberal dead end. So, the narrow national vision that underpins the Conservative position is not completely alien to Labour. If something like this is the choice on offer – if these are the two little Englands on offer – unification for the Irish and separation for Scotland may look more attractive.

This brings me back to where I started: the language of the letters written to Donald Tusk by Cameron and May. Perhaps, then, it is the political unconscious speaking in those letters even if the most recent challenge to English political dominance that continued EU membership represented has provoked a nationalism that is anything but banal.

No doubt, like his predecessors, the new Prime Minister will take the opportunity to write, whether to the President of the European Council or the President of the European Commission. Whatever is being said privately between the two negotiating parties, we can expect such a letter to be written partially for a domestic audience and hence to be made public.

How will he put it? In such a letter, will Johnson repeat in different words, his first public communication after being named Conservative leader, and invoke ‘the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red white and blue flag who together are so much more than the sum of their parts’?

Part of this is generic, boilerplate nationalism, ‘rally around the flag’ rhetoric. Yet most of it is distinctively English nationalism – the denial of challenges to English dominance which an acknowledgement of national disunity would represent, coupled with an appeal to the unbroken coherence of the United Kingdom (the ‘awesome foursome’), all of which studiously skirts political reality.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Hudson Meadwell is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University. Image © Copyright Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

[1] Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage, 1995); Michael Skey and Marco Antonisch (eds.), Everyday Nationhood. Theorizing Culture, Identity and Belonging After Banal Nationalism (London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2017), Political Geography. Special Issue, Banal Nationalism 20 Years On. 54 (September, 2016).

[2] Krishan Kumar, The Making of English National Identity. Englishness and Britishness in Comparative and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Michael Skey, National Belonging and Everyday Life (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2011).

[3] Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass. Britain and Its Monarchy (London: Verso, 2011, rev. ed), Leah Greenfeld, Nationalism. Five Roads to Modernity, (Cambridge, MASS.: Harvard University Press, 1992), chapter 1, Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, CT.: Yale University, 2009, rev. ed.)

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Don’t be fooled: the last thing Johnson wants is a no-deal Brexit

dimitro zenghelisBoris Johnson’s tack to no deal is aimed at neutralising the threat from the Brexit Party and triggering a general election, argues Dimitri Zenghelis (LSE). Whatever the outcome of that election, he can avoid the terminal damage that a no-deal exit would inflict on his premiership.

Last month, I argued that as Prime Minister Boris Johnson would have no interest in a ‘no deal’ outcome, and would tack to the centre, disappointing many Eurosceptics on the right of his party in the process. I was wrong. But only for now.

Johnson’s strategy is becoming increasingly transparent. Far from tacking to the centre, he has boxed himself in to the most extreme form of Brexit. He has promised to leave the European Union on 31 October, “do or die” – closing off the option of another extension, while declaring himself unwilling to negotiate until the EU drop from the deal any version of the ”anti-democratic” Irish backstop (a device designed to keep the UK in the EU customs union by default, until a solution to the Irish border issue is found). These uncompromising positions are likely to prove unacceptable to the European Council, making the default a departure from the EU on 31 October without a deal. However, a no-deal outcome is likely to prove unacceptable to parliament, raising the prospects of an early general election in the autumn.

This seems to be exactly what Johnson is angling for.  Claiming he has been blocked by both the EU and parliament from executing “the people’s will”, he will have neutered the electoral threat from the Brexit Party by fully taking on their agenda. Johnson has also begun his term with a series of high spending promises. Billions for the NHS and social care, new transport infrastructure projects, full fibre broadband and support for education. ”Boosterism” his team call it. Electioneering is how others see it.

Johnson the populist and his booster’s billions hope to take on the fragmented and weak opposition with his Churchillian talk of Britain’s “historic role… generous in temper and engaged with the world”. The “doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters” he promises “are going to lose their shirt”. It’s a long shot, but in view of the prevailing chaos, one can see why he might take it.

But what then? What happens after the autumn ballots have been cast? There seem to be three main possibilities. The first is that he cruises to victory with a landslide majority (or at least, a working majority). He would no longer rely on the DUP to pass key legislation and with a five-year term in the bag, the threat from the Brexit Party and his own party’s Eurosceptic European Reform Group (ERG) wing would be much diminished. In this scenario, he can pass an enhanced version of May’s deal (by putting lipstick on a pig, as some call it) and get on with reaping the rewards of the economic boost to confidence that follows any deal. Much of the right wing of his party will back him, not daring to bite the hand of a popular Tory PM (who’d have thought it?) who fed them their seats.

The second possibility is that the opposition get their act together, perhaps through tactical agreements to stand down candidates in key constituencies so as not to split the Remain vote, and as a result the Tories cannot form a majority government. Such an outcome would kill Brexiteer aspirations to no deal or even a hard Brexit.

The third outcome is that the electorate remains split and no party wins an outright majority. Johnson might again seek to rely on a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP in order to secure the keys to Number 10. This is where I return to the argument in my previous post. In such circumstances, Johnson is likely to tack to the centre.

Having failed to receive an electoral mandate for no deal, he will argue that the people have voted for compromise. This could take the form of a resuscitated version of May’s deal carried through a new parliament that wants to “get on with” Brexit. If the DUP or ERG threaten to vote against a deal, or push for a no confidence motion, Johnson will counter with the credible threat to put the vote to the people if he does not get his way “putting an end to this national pain once and for all”, potentially ending all hopes of Brexit altogether. The DUP and ERG won’t like it, but they will like this even less.

Such a strategy is not without its risks. Johnson might go down in history as the shortest-lived Prime Minister ever. But in these drab times, Johnson’s breezy gung-ho optimism has caught the public mood. It may win him votes but it will not survive contact with reality. The public will not be voting for recession, job losses, industrial closures, medicine rations and TV footage of the mass slaughter and burning of livestock, as would be expected in the event of no deal. This would be followed by endless negotiations with the EU from a position of much greater weakness. Johnson is no Eurosceptic ideologue, he is a populist: if he achieves a full five-year term as Prime Minister, why would he jeopardise it?

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Dimitri Zenghelis is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE. Previously, he headed the Stern Review Team at the Office of Climate Change, London, and was a senior economist on the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Before working on climate change, Dimitri was Head of Economic Forecasting at HM Treasury.

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No-deal Cabinet: time for another Bank of England stress test

With the new Cabinet made up of ‘Vote Leave veterans and right-wing free marketers’, Costas Milas discusses how the Bank of England may want to respond.

Evan Esar quipped in his Comic Dictionary that statistics is ‘the only science that enables different experts using the same figures to draw different conclusions’. This definitely applies to the notorious Brexit divorce bill figure of £39bn. Brexiteers believe that they can avoid paying the bill and extract a ‘better’ deal from our EU partners. Others interpret the above figure quite differently: it is a financial commitment that the UK has to fulfil.

Boris Johnson started his premiership with reference to this divorce bill. It is quite astonishing that his first speech as Prime Minister hinted that the UK stands ready to ignore its financial commitments in the case of no-deal Brexit. How reassuring can it be in the country’s ongoing efforts to sign trade agreements with the rest of the world when the Prime Minister declares he is ready to ignore existing international financial commitments? The £39bn bill nonetheless accounts for approximately 0.27% of the EU annual GDP (based on 2018 data) – it is not as big as Mr Johnson makes it seem. Assuming a 31 October 2019 exit date, the bill will have gone down (based on the latest estimates by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility) to £32.8bn.

Mr Johnson’s choice of cabinet ministers attracted, to a great extent, negative comments from the press. For instance, The Guardian noted that the new Cabinet is made up of ‘Vote Leave veterans and right-wing free marketers’. A definite worry about this combination is that many Cabinet ministers do not see no-deal Brexit as a problem for the economy and the country as a whole. Sure, the UK economy will eventually absorb the negative shock; that said, two important questions need immediate answers. First, why would the UK want to inflict on itself huge (short to medium term) economic pain when it can definitely avoid it by either agreeing to a version of Theresa May’s deal or by negotiating a further short-term extension which would then lead to another (but again not that different) Brexit deal?

Second, what is the exact size of the economic pain in case of a no-deal Brexit? The latest Bank of England Financial Stability Report points out that the 2018 stress test of the UK banking sector was sufficiently severe to deal with a disorderly Brexit. The assumptions of the test involved, among others, a 4.7% fall in gross domestic product, a 27% drop in the sterling effective exchange rate and a rise in the bank rate to 4% (presumably to defend our currency and stave off inflationary pressures). Nevertheless, recent comments by Bank of England policymakers, including Gertjan Vlieghe, suggest the very possibility of a near-zero interest rate in case of a no-deal Brexit.

Consequently, it makes sense for the Bank of England to assess the implications for our economy of a bank rate cut to zero rather than a rise to 4%. Would, for instance, the banking sector be able to absorb a potentially huge drop in bank deposits as customers will be looking for alternative returns outside a sinking (at least in the short term) UK economy? This question needs to be answered before Mr Johnson presses the no-deal Brexit ‘button’.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the LSE Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It first appeared on LSE British Politics and PolicyFeatured image credit: “Boris” by Raymond Wang is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Costas Milas is Professor of Finance at the University of Liverpool.

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Is Boris Johnson’s Brexit posturing just a power play?

phil syrpisBoris Johnson said the chances of no deal were ‘a million to one’. His government is also actively preparing for it. Phil Syrpis (University of Bristol) argues that the new PM’s true intention is likely to be to hold a general election as soon as possible.

The new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has promised that the UK will leave the EU by October 31. His stated aim is to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. Should that be impossible, he promises that we will be ready to leave without a deal on that iconic date. He has assembled a Cabinet, and a team of close advisors who include Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott – both, like Johnson and Michael Gove, leading figures in Vote Leave – who support these aims, and who are determined and optimistic that they will be able to achieve them. We will, do or die, they say, realise Brexit.


Boris Johnson arrives at No 10 on 24 July 2019. Photo: Number 10 via a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

It is of course possible that Boris Johnson is true to his word, and succeeds in delivering Brexit on or before October 31. This piece – which builds on a Twitter thread I wrote on July 25 – suggests that the reality may be different. It assumes that Boris Johnson’s principal motivation is not Brexit, but power. It suggests his aim is not to achieve Brexit by October 31, but rather to establish a narrative to enable him to win a pre-Brexit general election. Were he to win an overall majority he would be able, in the new political context, to reconsider his Brexit options. In this reading, the determined pursuit of Brexit – and in particular of a no-deal Brexit – is not the end, but merely a means to the end.

The problems with the stated aim

To begin with, there is very little chance that the renegotiation with the EU will be successful. The European Council decision of 11 April 2019 extending the Article 50 period, in its paragraph 12, expressly excludes any reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement. There is no sign of a ‘solution’ to the Irish border conundrum. And there has never, to my mind, been a convincing explanation as to why a ‘credible threat’ of no deal, forecast to cause significantly more damage to the UK than to the EU, will result in new ‘concessions’ from the EU, whose overriding interest is – and will remain – the protection of the integrity of the single market. It looks as though the renegotiation may be over very soon. It is not difficult to hear the beginnings of a case being made against the intransigent, inflexible, undemocratic, European Union.

And next, the path towards ‘no deal’ by October 31 is by no means smooth. This is for three linked sets of reasons. First, it is likely that there will be strong opposition within the Conservative Party, and within Parliament, to any move towards a no-deal Brexit. Given that his majority looks likely to be cut to 2 after this week’s by-election, Johnson can ill afford any internal opposition. And although the opposition to Johnson is divided, it is united in the desire to avoid no deal (though MPs have missed more than one opportunity to ‘take no deal off the table’). It is far from certain that PM Johnson would survive a vote of no confidence if his renegotiation fails, and he begins to actively pursue no deal.

Second, the delivery of any no-deal Brexit is difficult. We are, both legally and economically, as reports this week from the CBI and the Institute for Government illustrate, categorically not ‘no deal’ Brexit-ready. As the government’s preparedness notices amply illustrate, much of what is needed to ‘manage’ no deal relies on the passage of legislation – and hence Parliamentary support on which Johnson would be unwise to rely – and on coordination with the EU, whose likely first ask will be… a guarantee relating to the divorce bill, citizens’ rights, and the Irish border.

And third, any no-deal Brexit necessarily involves making the abstract Brexit, which won 52% support in the referendum of 2016, into something concrete. Almost inevitably, this reification of Brexit will alienate some of its erstwhile supporters. It has become almost axiomatic that proponents of Brexit fail not just to deliver it, but also to define it: Vote Leave was a deliberately broad church, Theresa May treated us to months of ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and even now, urgent questions about what a no-deal Brexit might entail remain stubbornly unanswered.

The case for a pre-Brexit general election

This all goes to show that leaving the EU by October 31 is likely to be very difficult, both from a political and a practical perspective. It may be that Johnson’s strategy is not to deliver no deal, but instead – having been thwarted first by an intransigent EU, and then by a remainer Parliament (Jacob Rees-Mogg is just the man to ensure that Parliamentary proceedings are presented in a suitably arcane and labyrinthine way) – to be forced to call a general election, in which he can position himself as the champion of the UK and the champion of the people.

If this is indeed his strategy, it is not without risk. But he is in a difficult position, and none of his options are risk-free. Given the timetable, it is likely that he would require an extension to Article 50; something which Johnson has said that he will not countenance. But if MPs conspire to make it impossible for him to deliver no deal – for example if a handful of Tory MPs refuse to support him, or if a majority of MPs supports a vote of no confidence against his leadership – he may credibly be able to say that his hand has been forced. Were an extension request to be made in October, it is of course possible that the EU will reject it, but it is more likely that they would be prepared to grant an extension in order to enable a ‘democratic event’, such as a general election, which provides a (perhaps slim) prospect of unlocking the impasse in the UK, to occur.

The greatest risk for Johnson is of course that he may not win a majority in a pre-Brexit general election. He is vulnerable on the one side from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and on the other, from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Nationalist parties. Nonetheless, he has reasons to feel optimistic. His pitch – that he is fighting the election in order to stand up to the twin evils of the EU and the remain establishment and achieve a mandate to (finally) deliver Brexit – will mirror that of the Brexit Party. If the Brexit Party continues to poll strongly, he may be able to consider some form of electoral pact with Nigel Farage. If he is feeling confident, he may instead choose to take him on. He also has grounds to suspect that the remain-leaning opposition parties will be divided. Relations between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists are strained. There is, in addition, no coherent message emerging from the various disparate factions. Some want to deliver a better Brexit; some hope for a people’s vote; only a few are prepared to make the call to revoke Article 50. He has assembled a team which seems well equipped to exploit his opponents’ weaknesses, and to fight – and win – an election. Given the divisions in the opposition, a 30-35% vote share is likely to afford him a majority in the House of Commons.

If he wins, he acquires the ability to reconsider his Brexit options. The problems associated with Brexit will remain the same, but the political context will be much changed. He will, at that stage, be in a position to reveal, or perhaps to begin to formulate, his true intentions. He is brazen enough to resile from inconvenient promises. He may opt for no deal or he may, for example, opt for leaving on the basis of the current withdrawal agreement, with a Northern Ireland-only backstop, aiming to secure a free trade agreement between GB and the EU. He will be guided by the possibilities which the new Parliament creates for him. His desire will be to move beyond Brexit, and – for better or worse – to deliver his vision for the UK.

This account may of course be wrong. Johnson may genuinely do all he can to deliver Brexit by October 31. He may succeed. If he fails, this may become his ‘Plan B’. And it may play rather better for him than a successful ‘Plan A’.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Phil Syrpis is Professor of EU Law at the University of Bristol Law School.

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Prime Minister Johnson has appointed a no-deal Cabinet

After Parliament successfully ended May’s hopes of securing her version of Brexit, Britain now has a new Prime Minister and a new government, all with less than 95 days to go until the UK is due to leave the European Union. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle has been characterised as brutal, but what does the new Cabinet mean for the UK’s departure from the European Union? The PM has appointed a no-deal Cabinet, says Thomas Eason (University of Nottingham).

Looking first at the Prime Minister himself, Johnson has said that he wants the UK to leave the EU with a newly negotiated Withdrawal Agreement. However, if a new deal cannot be obtained, his preference is for the UK to leave the EU without a deal on 31 October 2019. Unfortunately for Johnson, the prospects of negotiating a new deal are slim. Not long after he took office the EU quickly stated that it would not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement. Johnson’s preference for a newly negotiated deal is, therefore, a unicorn – it is promised but cannot be achieved. This leaves him with 3 credible options. He can try to get May’s deal through Parliament again, he can cancel Brexit and keep the UK in the EU, or he can opt for no-deal. His rhetoric clearly suggests the latter is his preference, and so too do some of his key Cabinet appointments.

Starting first with the appointment of the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, one could be mistaken for thinking continuity is Johnson’s plan. Barclay served as Brexit secretary under Thresa May, making him one of the few secretaries of state not to be purged from the Cabinet. However, while serving under May, he did not have altogether that much power over the Brexit process. This was because the Prime Minister chose to handle many of the negotiations herself. Indeed, Barclay’s input seemed to be limited to managing no-deal preparations. These have since been handed over to Michael Gove, thus begging the question, what will Barclay be doing as Brexit Secretary now? Well, The Department for Exiting the European Union’s website claims that the department is responsible for overseeing Brexit negotiations, and it is very likely that the machinery of the department is doing just that. As before, Barclay’s role in negotiations will ultimately depend upon how active the Prime Minister chooses to be, but his control over the department will ensure that his voice is heard by both his colleagues around the Cabinet table and the EU, and his position seems to be the same as Johnson’s. Barclay believes that if a new deal cannot be reached, crashing out of the EU under no-deal is the next best option. Since we know the EU is unwilling to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, no-deal is apparently the Brexit Secretary’s first choice.

Next then is Michael Gove. Gove has been appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, an obscure post that many have been forced to look up. As suggested above, he has been given control of the Cabinet Office and no-deal preparations. The Cabinet Office is responsible for coordinating government policy across departments, and since a no-deal Brexit would impact all areas of government policy, giving it control over no-deal preparations is probably a wise move. Ultimately then no-deal preparations are Gove’s responsibility, and since taking up his new position Gove has claimed that no-deal is now “assumed” by the government. Gove himself was famously one of the key faces of Vote Leave, meaning few can question his commitment to leaving the EU.

Taking the job of Secretary of State for International Trade in Liz Truss. In this role, Truss will be responsible for promoting British trade and securing new trade deals around the globe, a key part of the discursively constructed “Global Britain” image. When it comes to Brexit, Truss is one of those MPs that had a sharp change of opinion. During the referendum, Truss voted Remain. However, she has since become a very staunch Brexiter, claiming that if a deal cannot be secured, leaving the EU without a deal is the preferable option. Based on her current discourse then, Truss is another government voice speaking in favour of a no-deal Brexit.

That said, while many in the new government now promote a no-deal Brexit, few have done so as strongly as Dominic Raab, the new Foreign Secretary and de-facto Deputy Prime Minister. Like the others, Raab has repeatedly argued that if a new deal cannot be made, which the EU suggests it cannot, then no-deal is the best option. Indeed, he has even suggested that he would be willing to prorogue Parliament to ensure MPs cannot prevent no-deal from happening. The responsibilities for negotiating the Brexit and new trade deals may well fall under the control of other departments, but the role of foreign secretary is still important to the Brexit process. As Foreign Secretary, Raab will be seen as a spokesman for the British government by both domestic and international audiences, and thus any statements that he makes about Brexit will be heard around the globe. Furthermore, in conducting Britain’s diplomatic relations, the Foreign Office itself will be playing a crucial part in the process of creating new trade deals. Together, this all makes Raab a key player in the Brexit process and his preference is for no-deal secured through prorogation if necessary.

These extreme views are shared by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new Leader of the House of Commons, whom will also be attending Cabinet. In this role, Mogg will be responsible for controlling government time in the House of Commons, and thus (alongside the Chief Whip) will be tasked with getting any new deal through Parliament. More importantly, he will also be responsible for blocking any attempts by MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Over the years Mogg has made his views very clear. He believes that a no-deal Brexit is preferable to May’s Withdrawal Agreement and that the Government should prorogue Parliament to secure a no-deal if it needs to. Like Raab then, Mogg supports no-deal Brexit and the prorogation of Parliament to get there.

Lastly, there is Sajid Javid. As Chancellor, Javid will be crucial to ensuring economic stability in the event of a no-deal, and Johnson has reportedly ordered Javid to ensure Gove has all of the resources necessary to prepare for a no-deal Brexit. Like Truss, Javid is another MP that voted for Remain but now supports no-deal if the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be renegotiated.

Together then, taking into account the fact that the UK cannot renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, every single member of the Johnson Cabinet with significant control over Brexit now supports crashing out of the European Union without a deal. Indeed, considering the fragmented nature of May’s government, collective Cabinet responsibility is back in fashion, united behind no-deal. For those that wish to leave the EU with a deal and those that wish to remain, this is obviously a pretty bleak picture. Understandably so, since many experts agree that this scenario will be damaging to the UK’s economy, NHS, and global influence.

Regardless, based on Johnson’s rhetoric and Cabinet appointments, it looks very likely that the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. Furthermore, as this is the legal default, there is nothing that Parliament can really do to stop this without a change in the law. Such a change that would be very difficult to make within the time that is left and would very likely require an election. Even if MPs do take action, the threat of prorogation is very real with Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons. Ultimately then, a no-deal Brexit is now the primary policy of the British government and, while still not certain, appears to be the most likely outcome of the Brexit saga.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image by ChiralJon,(CC BY 2.0).

Thomas Eason is a PhD International Relations student at the University of Nottingham.

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Brexit behaviourally: which do you think is the bigger figure – £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?

tessa buchananThe Leave campaign’s ‘£350m a week’ figure cut through to voters in the 2016 referendum, while the Treasury’s ‘£4,300 per household per year’ didn’t. Was the relationship between the two figures intuitively self-evident? One is six times bigger than the other. Tessa Buchanan (University College London) looks at some of the behavioural lessons that can be learned from the campaign.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who picked up the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002, describes himself rather charmingly as “mediocre in math”. It’s fair to say that this is in comparison to university classmates who went on to become world-class mathematicians. However, this all-too-human admission underlines a wider psychological point.

As Kahneman wrote in his 2011 book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, while many people do simple calculations (e.g. 2 + 2) in their head using their automatic ‘System 1’ processes, they shy away from complicated sums (e.g. 17 x 24) that require them to engage the more effortful ‘System 2’ style of thinking. And if people are indeed reluctant to do the maths, then this has important implications for communicators, including those who worked on the 2016 EU referendum.

For example, if you were asked: “Thinking about the UK as a whole, which of these figures do you think is bigger: £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?” what would your immediate answer be?

Sources: Vote Leave campaign 2016/ Stronger In, citing HM Treasury, 2016

This question was posed as part of a wider piece of research I carried out in September 2017, findings from which were published this June in Mind & Society. Given that pollsters, journalists and academics alike were surprised by the results of the referendum, I wanted to explore what behavioural lessons could be learned from the campaign – not on the basis that behavioural science could fully explain the result, but rather on the assumption that in a close contest, even marginal gains could make a difference.

Over 450 Leave voters took part in a survey designed to test the extent to which individual elements of the MINDSPACE framework (2010) had been at play. This mnemonic was developed by academics including LSE professor Paul Dolan and founder members of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, then working at the Institute for Government, to raise awareness among civil servants of “nine of the most robust (non-coercive) influences on our behaviour”.

“I”, in this instance, represents “Incentives”. As described by Dolan et al.:

“Our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses.”

Loss aversion was an early discovery by Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky. They established that people care twice as much about potential losses as gains. In politics, this can be linked to nostalgia (consider the sense of loss in the phrase ‘Make America Great Again’). Certainly, it was deployed by both sides in the referendum campaign. Dominic Cummings (portrayed by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2019 Channel 4 drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’) was the campaign director of the official Vote Leave campaign, and is now a senior advisor to the Prime Minister. In a 2017 blogpost, he said that he amended his initial slogan of ‘Take Control’ to ‘Take Back Control’ as: “‘back’ plays into a strong evolved instinct – we hate losing things, especially control”.

In my study, I asked participants: “In your opinion, which of these slogans worked best?” My expectation was that twice as many would prefer the longer version. In fact, four times as many opted for “Take Back Control” over “Take Control” (67% vs. 16%).

One factor may be that, according to a 2016 British Election Study report, control was a particular issue for Leave voters. Those with an ‘external locus of control’ (who felt they had little control over what happened in their lives) were “much more likely” to vote Leave than those with an ‘internal locus of control’, it said.

Loss-framing was also used to present two of the most important economic arguments used in the campaign: the £350m which the Leave campaign said was being sent to the EU every week, and the £4,300 per household per year which HM Treasury said UK households stood to lose if voters opted for Leave (albeit after 15 years in one of three potential scenarios).

The figure of £350m a week was announced relatively early in the campaign and has since become indelibly associated with the UK’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Research published by Bobby Duffy in autumn 2018 suggested that 42% of the UK public still believe it to be true, despite criticism from the UK Statistics Authority that it was a “clear misuse of official statistics”. And views are split. One in five Remain supporters believe the figure, compared with two-thirds of Leave supporters.

The Treasury figure was linked to George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Gary Gibbon, political editor of Channel 4 News, describes in his 2016 book ‘Breaking Point’ how he was summoned to HM Treasury for the announcement of their figure. “Fingers in ears, the government fired off its great gun and waited for reaction,” he wrote. “Then they waited some more. And then a bit longer still.” This was in contrast to the Leave campaign’s £350m a week, which Gibbon said “got through to people”.

Why did the Treasury’s figure fall flat? Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon, in Brexit and British Politics (2017) argued that it had “spurious specificity”, being too precise for what was essentially a forecast. But was the relationship between the figures intuitively self-evident? Putting to one side questions about credibility and any time preference effects, I asked participants to compare the two figures at face value in the present time. Given that there were 27m UK households in 2016 (ONS), the question can be expressed mathematically as follows:

Is £350m × 52 weeks > £4,300 × 27m households?

The left-hand side of the equation amounts to £18.2bn a year, while the right-hand side amounts to £116.1bn a year – a figure six times larger.

When I asked participants in this study if they remembered these figures, £350m a week was recalled by ten times more people (72% vs. 7%). This was unsurprising as it was used prominently and spent longer in the public eye. I then asked participants: “Thinking about the UK as a whole, which of these figures do you think is bigger: £350m a week or £4,300 per household per year?” Only a third (35%) gave the correct answer, as against 39% who thought the Leave figure was greater and 26% who didn’t know.

Finally, I gave the participants the information needed to perform the calculation (the number of UK households) and asked them to choose which of four graphs showed the figures in the correct proportions. The correct graph was the least popular choice, picked by only 15%. The majority (39% + 18% = 57%) chose options showing
£350m a week as the larger figure.

Fig. 1 £350m a week vs. £4,300 per household per year

“If there are 27m households in the UK, which option do you think shows £350m a week (in red) versus £4,300 per household per year (in blue) in the correct proportions?”

It is well known in psychology that many humans find the relationship between smaller numbers easier to grasp intuitively than that between larger figures. For this reason, it is commonly held as best practice in government communications to do as the Treasury did, and reduce big numbers to more human-sized amounts.

In this instance, the folk wisdom failed, and this was not the only surprising finding that emerged from my research. Looking at the other elements of MINDSPACE, as a messenger, an anonymous “local businessman” was seen as more trustworthy on every issue tested than a cabinet secretary; the study threw up clues as to why the status quo bias, seen as the default by many, didn’t prevail; and by deploying affect and other behavioural insights in a narrative, I found that Leave voters’ views on immigration were not necessarily fixed.

However, the main message for communicators is that even experts can benefit from seeking out evidence on which to base their decisions. It’s good advice, as the Behavioural Insights Team suggests, to ‘Test, Learn, Adapt’; and to make it easy for people to understand your message. And it’s clearly rash to assume that voters will do the maths for themselves. After all, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler say in ‘Nudge’ (2008), when it comes to politics: “voters… seem to rely primarily on their Automatic System.”


Daniel Kahneman’s self-penned biography is published on the Nobel Prize website.

MINDSPACE (2010) was produced by the Cabinet Office and the Institute for Government and co-authored by Paul Dolan, Michael Hallsworth, David Halpern, Dominic King and Ivo Vlaev.

Thanks to Dr Shabnam Mousavi, Dr Severine Toussaert, Dr Lee de-Wit, Dr Alan Renwick and Dr Matteo Galizzi for their advice and support.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It draws on an article published in the June 2019 edition of Mind & Society (Tessa Buchanan, 2019. “Brexit behaviourally: lessons learned from the 2016 referendum,” Mind & Society: Cognitive Studies in Economics and Social Sciences, Springer; Fondazione Rosselli, vol. 18(1), pages 13-31, June.)

Tessa Buchanan (@UCLTessa) is a doctoral student at University College London. She studied for a master’s degree in Behavioural Science at LSE.

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Brexit Britain’s Trumpian moment?

Boris Johnson’s adoption of a No-Deal exit as a viable policy option can only be described as Brexit Britain’s Trumpian moment, writes John Ryan (LSE).

US President Donald Trump told a crowd in Washington: ‘Boris is good. They call him Britain Trump.‘ German English-language service Deutsche Welle published an article with the title ‘Boris Johnson’s clowning glory‘. Seen as Donald Trump’s boastful mini-me by many with no electoral mandate from the British people for No Deal and with a record of incompetence, ineptitude and intellectual laziness – Boris Johnson has nevertheless just been elected by the Tory party membership to become the Conservative party‘s leader and then by default the UK’s prime minister.

In what can only be described as Brexit Britain’s Trumpian moment, Johnson showed his political opportunism by adopting the Brexit Party’s key policy of No Deal Brexit as the way to stem the rise of arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage and to prevent the terminal decline of the Conservative party. Johnson’s lack of a viable plan for government besides a No Deal Brexit raises the prospect of a repeat of his tenure as Mayor of London in which he achieved little in eight years and in which he wasted money with little in the way of tangible benefits for Londoners.

Many adversaries, as well as colleagues of Boris Johnson, feel that he is personally unfit to be Prime Minister. The Guardian recently ran a series of articles during the Conservative leadership election pointing out his political and personal deficiencies. They say that he is a habitual liar, a cheat, a cruel betrayer of the women in his life, a politician who connived in a bid for a court order to suppress mention of a daughter he fathered, a do-nothing mayor of London and the worst foreign secretary in living memory. He was described as a diagnosed narcissist whose entire political career has been constructed through the prism of personal opportunism. Johnson as foreign secretary contributed to a British national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian citizen being incarcerated in Iran after he wrongly stated she was teaching journalism in the country, a comment cited by Iran to undermine her case.

There are known to be several Conservative MPs who have deep reservations about serving under a prime minister who is prepared to leave the EU without a Brexit deal on 31 October. An early vote of no confidence would trigger a 14-day period during which someone else – including Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn – could try and form a government which wins the support of the Commons. If that cannot be achieved, then the UK would face a general election. But to prevent a No Deal Brexit, there would need to be a new prime minister in place who is prepared to go to the EU to ask for a further extension before the 31 October 2019 deadline is reached.

Holding an election out of his own volition would be dangerous for Johnson with the poor state of the economy, the weakened pound, businesses leaving or not investing in the UK, the sad state of health care, council cuts to old-age care, rising debt and corroded public finances, the lack of police on the streets, climate change, supporting Trump’s foreign policy adventures, and dealing with China, Iran, Israel, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The political fallout associated with the economic hit of a Johnson-induced No Deal Brexit should not be underestimated. We know that higher barriers to trade, investment and migration will damage UK productivity growth; and that British consumers will be forced to buy more expensive imports or lower quality British alternatives, hitting living standards. It will be a mix of the two, but that mix is hard to quantify. What is more, the Brexit referendum in 2016 coincided with robust global growth. With signs of a slowing global – and European – economy, the costs of Brexit would be more acute now. The immediate damage would be enormous, if only because of the uncertainty and the lack of preparation, both among governments and companies both in Britain and the EU.

Newly appointed members of the Boris Johnson cabinet do not inspire confidence. Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, now foreign secretary, was mocked for confessing he “hadn’t quite understood the full extent” of the UK’s dependence on the Dover-Calais crossing for trade. Former development secretary and staunch Brexiteer Priti Patel now home secretary made the outrageous suggestion that Britain should use the threat of food shortages to force Ireland to change its approach to Brexit. The tragedy of the Irish famine which caused the death of over a million Irish men, women and children was one of the most shameful episodes in British history.

Some people appear as stupid or ignorant because that is exactly what they are. Ignorant people can succeed against the odds if success depends on other, unrelated qualities. Boris Johnson is the populist’s populist and has been described as both the thinking man’s idiot and the idiot’s thinking man. For many inside and outside Britain, the Tory party seems to be governed by a self-involved clique which includes Boris Johnson that rewards group membership above competence and self-confidence above expertise.

Clearly, MPs damaged Johnson‘s hopes of forcing a No Deal Brexit through Parliament on 18 July 2019 when they voted by a large margin to prevent a future Johnson government from suspending it to prevent it from voting against No Deal. But that does not mean Parliament can legislate to stop No Deal without the government’s consent. There were some 47 Conservative MPs who defied the whip: 17, including the former digital minister Margot James, voted for the plan, while another 30 abstained, most notably Cabinet ministers at the time of the vote Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Rory Stewart and Greg Clark. Any plan by Boris Johnson to leave the EU without a deal would result in Parliament passing a vote of No Confidence in his government, with a high chance of success. That would almost certainly precipitate a General Election, in which a new mandate would be offered to ‘the people’, either to revoke Article 50, or to offer the nation a new referendum on Brexit.

Johnson wants to ensure there is no hard Irish border, even in a No Deal scenario, through so-called alternative arrangements – technological approaches by which customs and regulations checks would take place automatically, or away from the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The consensus among experts in the UK and the EU is that such technology is several years away from being useable, and there is not the slightest chance of a system being in place for 31 October 2019. Analysts at JP Morgan investment bank said the two Prime Ministerial candidates’ quest for a Brexit withdrawal agreement without the “Irish backstop” was like hunting a unicorn. “A unicorn with a lick of paint is still a unicorn,” analysts Malcolm Barr and Allan Monks wrote in a note sent to clients.

Johnson has got a technical working majority of two, which could fall to one after a by-election in Brecon on 1 August 2019. Last Wednesday Chancellor Philip Hammond, International Development Secretary Rory Stewart, Justice Secretary David Gauke and de facto deputy Prime Minister David Lidington all handed in their resignation after Theresa May’s final Prime Minister’s Questions and before May formally handed in her resignation to the Queen. A total of 17 ministers from Theresa May’s Government, including Penny Mordaunt, Liam Fox and Jeremy Hunt, were either sacked, resigned or retired. That is a  purge of unprecedented scale. Dominic Cummings, the former head of the Vote Leave campaign, was appointed Senior Adviser to Boris Johnson.  This is a now a radical right-wing Vote Leave Brexit government. Even before he stepped foot through the door of No.10, Johnson knew that others could drive the narrative of his premiership.

At Eton, notes James Wood in the London Review of Books, they were taught to impose themselves on the world with “effortless superiority”. But these people fall short too often. The trouble is they keep failing upwards – constantly given the benefit of the doubt, leaving them with the benefits and the rest of people of the UK with the consequences of leaders who are unable to run a modern society and economy with a detrimental effect for the less well-off citizens of Britain. On 22 July 2019,  an opinion piece in the New York Times gave this damming assessment of Boris Johnson:

“Boris Johnson, to whom lying comes as easily as breathing, is on the verge of becoming prime minister. He faces the most complex and intractable political crisis to affect Britain since 1945. That should be concerning enough. But given Britain’s political system — which relies for its maintenance on the character and disposition of the prime minister — it carries even graver importance. Mr. Johnson, whose laziness is proverbial and opportunism legendary, is a man well practiced in deceit, a pander willing to tickle the prejudices of his audience for easy gain. His personal life is incontinent, his public record inconsequential.”

On 24 July, the assessment in The Guardian editorial “Boris Johnson’s leadership: the years of a clown” was stark: “Burning bridges to Europe is an act of arson, not statesmanship. Leaving the EU without a deal threatens to wreck the UK economy, break up Britain and rekindle violence on the island of Ireland.” Prime Minister Johnson’s first soundbite outside Number 10 was “Forget the Backstop, the Buck Stops Here”. The first part of the phrase is wishful thinking, but the second part may come back to haunt him – especially with Nigel Farage’s Brexit party waiting for him to fail. There is no trust or enthusiasm for Prime Minister Johnson in the EU which will make any chance of a deal very difficult.

With the right-wing populist Boris Johnson taking the country’s premiership, Britain’s Trumpian moment has arrived. En route, Johnson has lulled the Tory party into Brexiteer unicorn illusions and raised the prospect of a No Deal Brexit. When reality hits, it may not only be a sore awakening for Boris Johnson and his government, but also for the United Kingdom.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics. Image © Flickr / BackBoris2012Campaign

Professor John Ryan is a Visiting Fellow at LSE IDEAS. He has been a researcher at CESifo, Munich, Germany, St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, Germany. John is working as a senior partner in consultancy as a Brexit adviser for EU, Gulf and Asian clients.

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Pressures to recall Parliament over the summer seem likely – what if they occur?

meg russellWith less than 14 weeks remaining before the current Article 50 deadline, the Commons is not due to meet again for almost six weeks. This creates some very obvious scrutiny gaps. Meg Russell and Daniel Gover (UCL Constitution Unit) suggest that pressures for a Commons ‘recall’ during the summer recess seem likely, but that this will revive difficult questions about who can, and should be able to, recall MPs.

On 25 July, MPs left Westminster for the summer recess. Yet the new Prime Minister has only just arrived in No 10, making immediate parliamentary scrutiny of the new government’s key decisions all but impossible. An added pressure, of course, comes from the Brexit context. The current Article 50 deadline for the UK to depart the EU is 31 October, but parliament is due to remain closed for around half that time – for almost six weeks initially, until 3 September, followed by another break for the party conferences. During this period, calls for parliamentary scrutiny of the new government – most obviously over Brexit – seem very likely to grow.

commons may pmqs

Theresa May leaves the Commons after her last Prime Minister’s Questions on 24 July 2019. Photo: UK Parliament/Roger Harris via parliamentary copyright.

In this post we examine the pressures that may build for a recall of parliament during the summer, and what mechanisms exist for MPs if they do. Crucially, a formal Commons recall can only be initiated by the government – which may push parliamentarians towards innovative solutions. In the longer term, pressures for reform of the recall process may well be revived.

Why there may be pressures for recall

Demands for the Commons to be recalled from a recess are not unusual, as discussed below. However, they seem especially probable this year. MPs broke up just one day after the new Prime Minister took office, while the tensions over Brexit and how Boris Johnson intends to handle it are running high.

There will be very little time under current plans for parliament to quiz the Prime Minister on his Brexit strategy. The immediate start to the recess hence already looks problematic, and claims that the new Prime Minister is dodging scrutiny may be made.

Given the pressing deadline, the new Prime Minister and his Brexit Secretary will quickly seek to enter negotiations with EU leaders and other governments. Public statements – through speeches or media appearances – are likely. But with MPs not sitting, the usual parliamentary mechanisms of accountability such as government statements to the House of Commons, or (particularly if these are not forthcoming) ‘urgent questions’, will not apply. This is in stark contrast to previous months, when ministers made frequent statements on Brexit. During sessions in both January and February, for example, Prime Minister Theresa May faced MPs at the despatch box for almost two and a half hours at a time.

A key question will be whether the new Prime Minister appears on track to negotiate a revised withdrawal agreement, or whether he appears set on pursuing a ‘no deal’ Brexit. The latter would be of particular concern to MPs. Given indications that various senior Conservatives might be prepared to vote down the government if it pursued such a strategy, there could even be suggestions that the Prime Minister has lost the Commons’ confidence – with no opportunity for that claim to be tested formally.

Calls for recall therefore appear quite likely, from the opposition, from concerned government backbenchers, from media critics, and possibly from the wider public. Questions seem inevitable about whether it is appropriate for the Commons to take an extended break at a time when the UK is potentially just three months away from a chaotic ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Why MPs may be frustrated

Recall of the Commons is however not easy to achieve, as the government effectively possesses a veto over such a move. The process for recalling the Commons when it is ‘adjourned’ (although not when it is ‘prorogued’ or ‘dissolved’) is set out in its Standing Order No. 13. This states that a recall can only be initiated by a government minister, with the Speaker empowered to grant the request if satisfied it would be in the public interest. The rules also state that the business to be discussed during recall is ‘such as the government may appoint’. Other MPs play no formal role. By contrast, the Lord Speaker is empowered to recall the House of Lords based only on ‘consultation’ with the government.

The government’s control over Commons recall has in the past led to loud complaints that ministers can be inappropriately shielded from parliamentary scrutiny and accountability. Most notably, during the escalation of tensions around Iraq in 2002–03, concerns were expressed about the inability to scrutinise Blair’s government when the Commons was not sitting, feeding calls for reform discussed below. More recently, David Cameron encountered complaints for having not recalled the Commons over the situations in Gaza and Israel and over Tata Steel in 2014, while Theresa May faced criticism last year for not recalling the Commons prior to military intervention in Syria.

What action could parliamentarians take?

Despite the formal limitations, MPs are not entirely powerless when it comes to creating pressure for a recall. As with so much at Westminster, the written rules tell only part of the story. Were demands for recall to grow, the main difficulties facing ministers would hence be political rather than procedural. Ultimately, it could prove counter-productive for government to resist serious demands to resume parliamentary business.

The first option available to MPs is to appeal to ministers, either through private or more public channels. This has often occurred in the past. For example, on the situation in Gaza and Israel cited above, Labour MP Debbie Abrahams presented a multi-faith petition to the Prime Minister in support of recall. Nonetheless, David Cameron rejected the suggestion as unnecessary. On Brexit (and indeed on the current tensions in the Gulf), pressures could more easily become overwhelming – particularly if supported by Conservative backbenchers.

An interesting question arises regarding whether peers could force a recall of the Lords, given the Lord Speaker’s greater discretion when compared to his Commons counterpart (which is traceable to the time when the Lords presiding officer was the Lord Chancellor – i.e. a government minister). Although the Prime Minister himself would not be present at a Lords recall, one of his ministers could at least be held to account in that forum. But this would very much be a second-best option, and in any case its likelihood is doubtful. The Lord Speaker would normally exercise discretion to recall the Lords only if the Commons itself had been recalled. However, if calls from peers became widespread, the pressure on him could be significant.

The more likely course of action if MPs’ demands for a recall are ignored is that they take matters into their own hands – and there is precedent for this approach. In 2002, when Blair’s government resisted calls for recall over Iraq, Labour backbencher Graham Allen drew up detailed plans to hold a ‘rebel, unofficial Parliament’ (as he explained in a Commons debate on 2 April 2009). The government having resisted pressure for recall, Allen consulted other MPs and, finding demand to be high, booked Church House in Westminster for the sitting to take place. He also gained agreement from a former Commons Speaker to preside over the debate, and from the BBC to live broadcast the proceedings. Recognising the risk of major embarrassment, the government relented and recalled the Commons for a formal sitting.

Repeating this strategy over Brexit is quite possible, and indeed similar proposals were recently made by the former Conservative leadership contender Rory Stewart in the context of a possible prorogation. Such an unofficial meeting would have clear limitations: it would not hold any formal power, and there is no guarantee that ministers would attend to respond to questioning. But a well-attended unofficial sitting could nonetheless have considerable political clout while, as in 2002, even the threat of such action could be enough to force the government’s hand.

Options for reforming the power of recall

Past controversies have fed calls for reform of the recall process, and various proposals have been made – including by a previous government (as set out this Commons Library briefing). Should tensions mount this summer, past proposals may well be revived in the longer term.

The simplest change would be for recall powers to be vested entirely in the Speaker, possibly with an inbuilt requirement to consult ministers first. Following the controversy over Iraq, Graham Allen pursued a cross-party motion to achieve this, and the Commons Procedure Committee subsequently made a similar recommendation in 2003. Such an arrangement would not be entirely new to Westminster: it already exists in the Lords, while (as set out in Erskine May) the Commons Speaker has had this responsibility in the past. Such a model also applies in other legislatures, including the Scottish Parliament, and the lower chambers of Australia and Canada.

This kind of arrangement would put considerable power in the hands of the Speaker. Hence an alternative would be for the Speaker to be empowered on the request of a certain number of MPs. In 2007, Gordon Brown’s government proposed this, with the necessary threshold being half of all MPs. However, the plan was never implemented. In 2017 the current Speaker, John Bercow, suggested that the threshold might be set at a quarter of all MPs, with an explicit requirement for cross-party support.

A third approach would be for a specific group of MPs to be empowered to trigger recall directly. In the past Conservative backbencher Peter Bone has argued for a new Business of the House Commission to be handed responsibility for recall. This is reminiscent of the proposal for a cross-party House Business Committee to schedule Commons business, as most notably made by the ‘Wright committee’ (the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons) in 2009.

Whatever happens over recall this summer, other Brexit controversies – regarding prorogation and MPs’ taking control of the order paper – look set to fuel a wider debate about reform of the Commons’ control over its own time and agenda. When the dust finally settles, various such proposals are likely to be revisited.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. It is an updated version of a post that first appeared at the UCL Constitution Unit blog.

ProfessorMeg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit, and also a Senior Fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe studying ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’.

Dr Daniel Gover is currently a Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit, and is also a researcher at Queen Mary University of London.

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Post-2016 Britain faces a generation of constraining dissensus

Modern British politics is usually dated to either 1945 or 1979, both years symbolising generational resets that created new consensuses in British politics. As Tim Oliver (University of Loughborough) explains, 2016 is the new year by which British politics is dated. But instead of a new consensus, post-2016 Britain faces a generation of constraining dissensus.

The Conservative party leadership race, and Boris Johnson’s many foibles, has taken some attention away from Brexit. But as with so much in British life today, Brexit lurks in the background. The leadership race itself shows how Brexit has consumed, confounded and humiliated Britain’s political class. No wonder that the idea of suspending parliament to allow a no-deal Brexit is being taken as a serious idea by some in the Conservative party. They hope a British exit will allow their party, parliament and the country to move on.

But Britain is not going to move on. British politicians and public are still coming to terms with a generational reset of British politics triggered by the 2016 vote. Hopes a no-deal exit or some new withdrawal deal can end the bickering and divisions are as deluded as hopes a second referendum victory for Remain can return life to some pre-June 2016 norm. 2016 is becoming the year by which modern British politics is dated and defined. Traditionally 1945 and then 1979 were the years by which British politics was dated. But instead of some new political consensus emerging, as happened after 1945 and 1979, post-2016 Britain faces a generation of dissensus and all the constraints and obstacles that flow from that.

For Britain, 1945 was not only the end of the Second World War. It was also the year Winston Churchill, for all he had done to lead the country in its finest hour, was thrown out of office by a landslide victory for the Labour party. Clement Attlee’s Labour government set about building a ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state and a mixed economy. Management of Britain’s relative decline became the norm for a post-war retreat from empire while trying to hold on to global status through such things as the acquisition of an atomic bomb.

In 1979 that consensus was swept aside by Margaret Thatcher. The power of the market replaced the power of the state. Relative decline was given short shrift by the Iron Lady. Her successors up to David Cameron lived in her shadow as those before her had lived in that of Attlee.

The consensuses following 1945 and 1979 were, of course, the product of changes long in the pipeline and connected to wider international trends. Whether it was the Great Depression or the collapse of Bretton Woods, each new consensus reflected problems from the previous system. Nor were they complete revolutions or entirely accepted. Despite Thatcher’s efforts, state spending remains high and British relative decline very real. What few dispute is that the Thatcher and Attlee governments set the political weather for the following generation. It’s why their statues stand in the lobby of the House of Commons alongside those of Churchill and Lloyd George, the other two defining – and wartime – prime ministers of 20th century British politics.

Sixteen years into the 21st century and Britain once again faces a reset of its politics. Far from leading to a period of consensus, however, it’s likely Britain is now entering a generation of dissensus. It’s long been clear that the referendum was about more than UK-EU relations. Through the voting for Remain or Leave the British people voted on a range of issues and were motivated by more than just relations with Brussels.

In the political uncertainty that has reigned since the vote, politicians, not least Theresa May, have not only tried to find a way of withdrawing Britain from the EU. She tried to use Brexit as a means to affect a wider change to Britain’s political economy, identity, constitution and place in the world. That May failed and that no other political or ideological consensus has prevailed reflects the tumultuous political weather of the post-2016 consensus. Instead of one narrative or ideological agenda, Britain’s politics, society, economics, constitution, unity and place in the world are now deeply contested.

Such divisions are hardly new. The referendum and the post-referendum politics, however, have combined them, polarised opinion and forced the UK to face difficult choices it has long put off. It means successive prime ministers – whether Boris Johnson now or somebody else such as Jeremy Corbyn – will be unable to create a new consensus.  Instead of a new consensus, future governments will be faced by a period of dissensus, and thanks to all the divisions it will be a constraining dissensus at that.

The idea of a ‘constraining dissensus’ has been applied to the EU itself. The emergence over the past thirty years of multiple forms of Euroscepticism have left the EU struggling to integrate in ways it once did when a more permissive consensus about integration prevailed amongst the EU’s citizens and politicians. The UK faces something of a similar fate. Even the unity of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is contested. A recent survey showed a majority of Conservative party members willing to accept Scotland and Northern Ireland’s departure from the UK as the price worth paying for an EU exit.

Equally fraught divisions over immigration, identity politics, the economy, the constitution, relations between the USA and Europe and much more now constrain Britain’s politicians, political parties and parliament. Add into the mix a constitutional setup thrown into a state of unprecedented flux and it becomes clear that even a large majority for one party in the House of Commons is unlikely to allow a prime minister or single party to set the agenda.

Much like the EU itself then, Britain’s politics for at least a generation is set to be one of ambivalence and division.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of  LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. This article also appeared on the Clingendael blog. Image © Flickr / BackBoris2012Campaign.

Dr Tim Oliver is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University London.

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‘I didn’t say it’: how families negotiate tensions around Brexit

katherine daviesHow do ordinary people, outside the Westminster bubble, negotiate the tensions surrounding Brexit in their family lives? Katherine Davies (University of Sheffield) shares some of the initial findings from her research project.

It goes without saying that Brexit has dominated UK politics over the past three years. What has been less visible has been the ways Brexit has pervaded everyday life, making its way into conversations at work, in front of the television, in family WhatsApp groups as well as expressed through silence and the avoidance of talking politics.

When the media’s gaze has moved away from Westminster, the focus has often been on Britain as a nation divided by Brexit. These tropes of division fail to grasp the complexities of Brexit as experienced in everyday family life. Based on qualitative interviews with 31 people from a range of backgrounds and including both ‘baby boomers’ and ‘millennials’ and those who voted Leave and Remain, I suggest a reframing of some of the central questions and themes that have thus far dominated debates.

Tenacity rather than division

Rather than a nation ‘deeply divided’ over Brexit, people I interviewed as part of my research were working hard to avoid falling out with their family over political differences. Many of the people I spoke to had family members or friends who had voted differently from them and, though arguments did occur, they employed a number of tactics to avoid these differences resulting in relationship breakdown. These tactics included biting their tongue, carefully judging when and where to talk politics as well as ‘reading’ the reactions of others in order to determine whether to raise the subject of Brexit. The overwhelming sentiment that arose in the interviews was about the tenacity of family relationships. These relationships, formed well before Brexit, were seen as valuable enough to weather the storm, even if this was sometimes hard work. As Sarah, a 52-year-old woman who voted Remain stated of her Leave voting brother; ‘We could have had a massive falling out, but I think you think, what’s the point?…At the end of the day, he’s my brother and we get on very very well. He’s got a right to do what he thinks is right, hasn’t he?’

Silence as action, not apathy

Many people I interviewed talked about avoiding conversations about Brexit. Some tried to avoid talking politics altogether. As Kate, a 64-year old woman, stated: ‘There’s three things you never ever discuss round a dinner party, and it’s politics, religion and money. And if you avoid these three subjects everything’s fine.’ Others talked about sometimes ‘biting their tongue’ to avoid causing an argument or upsetting family members. Take the following example from Claudia, who bit her tongue in a discussion with her friend: ‘He said he was going to vote Labour, and I wanted to say to him that, ‘I can’t understand why anybody in their right mind would vote for them’, but I didn’t say it, because I didn’t want to cause any sort of controversy.’

It would be easy to assume that staying silent about politics is a symptom of political apathy, but this would overlook the role of silence in everyday family life. Silence is an important tool used by people to keep the peace and to continue their family life despite political difference.

Biography and memory, not ‘baby boomers’ versus ‘millennials’

The idea of a generational divide between ‘baby boomers’ who are said to have voted mainly to leave, and ‘millennials’, said to have overwhelmingly voted to remain, has pervaded much media coverage of the Brexit vote. However, my research indicates that it is not so simple. Though there was no clear-cut generational divide in terms of voting behaviour, the role of people’s memories and biography was an important part of their orientation towards Brexit. Many people who can be viewed as part of the ‘baby boomer’ generation, for example, recalled the 1975 referendum to join the EU and felt that these memories gave them a different perspective on their Brexit decision. Take John’s discussion below where he feels that his decision to vote Leave can be explained by his memories of the original referendum:

‘If you want to be blunt about the European Union it’s not what we signed up to join…We agreed to join the common market in 1973 [sic], there was no mention of anything to do with the way it is right now. It was a common market, end of story. And that story was put out intentionally. You’ve only got to go back through history and look at some of the interviews that took place in 1973 and the misleading statements that were made by politicians. And really people were misled in 1973 as to where it was going.’

Others drew upon more personal memories of key moments in British political history. Take the following example, where Rosemary is talking about her memories of the 1984-5 miners strike. It is clear that this has affected her politics today, including her views of austerity:

‘Yeah, no, my dad never liked the unions I must admit. Obviously all that sort of thing did have a big effect because I know somebody whose father was a miner… it affected his growing up very, very much… nowadays I just think it’s really bad the way that the government is not looking after the people, I’m sure that there’s some way that they could sort out their money without making the general public suffer.’

Thus, whilst it is important to avoid making crude generalisations about the voting behaviours and motivations of different generations, the role of political memory and biography is a significant part of how people live with and make sense of politics in the present. Rather than outright generational division, it was these memories that could sometimes set people apart from others in their family.

The mundane and everyday, as well as Westminster and Brussels

Ultimately, this research has pointed to the importance of looking at mundane and everyday interactions about Brexit. Outside of Westminster and Brussels, people are making sense of Brexit in relational ways, managing disagreements and differences within their existing relationships and forming opinions within the context of their own biographies. My current research project, undertaken with Dr Adam Carter at the University of Sheffield, seeks to tap into the ways that Brexit is lived in ordinary, everyday lives. The project will work with a small number of families over time in order to understand how the ebbs and flows of Brexit map onto their everyday lives. Methods will include the keeping of Brexit diaries as well as Gogglebox-style television viewing to get a sense of how conversations and silences about Brexit might arise in families. These micro lived realities of relational life in ‘Brexit Britain’ are often overlooked in media coverage and political commentary – yet they have crucial implications for governance post-Brexit. It is vital that we avoid framing our Brexit discussions in ways that obscure what matters in people’s everyday lives.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Katherine Davies is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The University of Sheffield. Her latest research project, Brexit, Relationships and Everyday Family Life, is funded under the ESRC’s Governance After Brexit initiative.

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The seductions of Boris Johnson: hot air as political strategy

candida yatesBoris Johnson’s public persona has been carefully honed over the years, writes Candida Yates (Bournemouth University). Most male politicians have been paternalistic in style: the new PM has instead sought to resemble a fraternal figure, who conjures up a nostalgic irreverence for authority.

Last week, an inflatable ‘Boris blimp’ could be seen floating over London as thousands marched against Brexit and Boris Johnson. Now he has been crowned the Conservative party leader and Prime Minister. As with Donald Trump, who was also given the blimp treatment on a visit to London, there are similarities between the ‘real’ Johnson and his inflatable double – both signifying emptiness and plastic superficiality buoyed up by an inflated sense of self-worth. It is not surprising that Johnson, who resembles a kind of toy with whom the electorate can play, lends himself so well to the comical blow-up doll floating above the crowds, inflated by so much hot air.

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Boris Johnson visits Birmingham on 26 July 2019. Photo: Number 10 via a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

The performative, upbeat style of Johnson’s leadership campaign – as optimist, blagger and loveable rogue – represents a continuation of the public image he has built up over the years. His communication skills have been honed in various media and political settings, and his celebrity status is such that he is regarded as ‘political box office’ (Channel 4, 2019). Johnson continues to draw on the familiar, playful routines that worked so well for him during his time as London mayor (2008-16), a period which he regularly cites in interviews. Given his woeful record as foreign secretary (2016-18), one might even see that period in City Hall as his heyday – despite reports of his ‘baffling’ incompetence with regard to financial expenditure and other matters (Jenkins, 2019). While his charismatic public image enabled him to shore up his power base in his bid to become party leader and PM, it is not always easy to square his professional ambition with his comical masquerade and public reputation.

His seemingly authentic and spontaneous, unspun qualities as a fearless ‘can-do’ politician have been key to his ability to connect with the public, and his recourse to the language of ‘feeling good’ also reflects the close relationship between the performativity of celebrity politicians and the emotionalisation of politics today (Yates, 2019). The ways in which certain sections of the electorate relate to and identify with politicians such as Johnson provide further examples of such emotive processes at work. Deploying a psychodynamic analysis of the emotional investment in Johnson as a populist politician allows us to understand the structures of feeling that shape his appeal, and also the affective dynamics of contemporary political culture more widely.

As we know, Johnson has constructed a persona as a benign, old-school English eccentric, who refuses to identify with superego figures of authority – such as those labelled in pejorative terms as members of the out-of-touch ‘metropolitan elite’, or as faceless EU technocrats. He deployed a similar strategy when opposing Jeremy Hunt whose capacity to be ‘on top of policy detail’ was also spun as dull and technocratic. In the past, psychoanalytic studies of leadership have focused on the processes of fantasy around politicians as idealised parental figures, where the vertical structures of identification shape the relationship to them as objects of the psycho-political imagination. Today, however, Western democracies are influenced by a loss of faith in the old structures of authority: the hierarchical Oedipal identifications in public life have been challenged by the sociopolitical and cultural forces of late modernity. As an ambitious politician, Johnson is both a product of this wider context but also one who has been able to exploit the shifting patterns of identification to his advantage.

The increasing influence of social media across all levels of society often leads to more horizontal, ‘sibling’ structures of fantasy and identification. The popularity of Johnson’s playful persona with sections of the Conservative electorate – who are predominantly men – invites such fraternal rather than paternal identification, providing a perfect foil for perceptions about the ‘faceless authoritarian’ figures of the EU and the ‘elitism’ of its governing bodies. With his teddy bear looks and public gaffes that make people laugh, Johnson is, for some, a seductive figure; any notion of governance associated with his role as a senior politician is thus undercut and can be deflected elsewhere onto his opponents and the so-called ‘elite’, of which he is course a member. His apparent lack of deference to the establishment sits well with an electorate who are increasingly cynical and disenchanted with politics, and he manages to ward off any potential ressentiment of his position as an elite politician by representing himself as an un-impinging figure that people can enjoy.

Johnson often mocks the pomposity of those in the establishment who lack his ‘optimism’ and who too often call on the so-called ‘dull’ authority of ‘experts’. By contrast, Johnson’s very traditional English trait of celebrating amateurism and of refusing to take things too seriously taps into his populist appeal. It allows him to associate himself with a mode of English nationalism underpinned by the symbols of English cultural nostalgia, thereby appealing to his English base within the Conservative party membership – a generation raised on Jammie Dodgers and comics such as The Beano with cartoon characters that resemble the comical persona of Johnson himself. And yet, this nostalgic cultural imaginary also represents a retreat to a realm of psychosocial and political relations shaped by the values of empire and the injuries of racialisation, gender and social class.

The use of nostalgia as a defence against the losses and uncertainties of contemporary culture has been discussed at length, and the desire to turn back also taps into deep-rooted concerns about change and of being ‘left behind’ by the forces of modernity (Yates, 2015). For many, such anxieties played a key role in motivating them to vote to leave the EU, and Johnson’s image and leadership style resonates in that respect (Eaglestone, 2018). A cultural desire to look back – or at least to turn away from contemporary malaise and to identify instead with Johnson’s retro style – can be seen in this broader psycho-political and cultural context, but it is also framed by the experience of social and economic precarity. At the collective level, a fantasy of history is returned to and remains unmourned as, for example, in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s (2019) idealised account of Britain’s place in the world as a colonial power.

In contrast to figures such as the strangely serious and fastidious-looking Rees-Mogg, Johnson – like his hair – functions as a signifier of chaos and vivacity which, in the UK at least, is still unusual for high-profile politicians in public office. Johnson’s ‘Samson moment’ – having his hair cut in order to appear more convincing as a PM in waiting – is a reminder of his ‘as-if’ status as a boy in the public domain. However, as we have seen, there are a number of tensions between Johnson’s comical Just William persona and his new role as the PM who has set a course to sever ties with Europe. We are told that Johnson likes to be liked, and was shocked when he was heckled by Londoners as he left his house following the referendum result in 2016. Despite his current popularity with members of the Conservative party, the contradictions of his public persona will be tested, and the public may grow impatient with the vacuity of his performance as so much hot air.


Eaglestone, R. (ed.) Brexit and Literature. London: Routledge.
Rees-Mogg, J. (2019) The Victorians: twelve titans who forged Britain. London: Random House.
Yates, C. (2019) ‘“Show Us You Care!” The gendered psycho-politics of emotion and women as political leaders,’ European Journal of Politics and Gender (in Press).
Yates, C. (2018) On the psychodynamics of Boris Johnson and Brexit, New Associations, (25): 4-5.
Yates, C. (2015) The Play of Political Culture, Emotion and Identity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Yates, C. (2014) Political Sport and the Sport of Politics: A Psycho-Cultural Study of Play, the Antics of Boris Johnson and the London 2012 Olympic Games. In: Bainbridge, C. and Yates, C. (2014) (Eds.) Media and the Inner World, Psycho-Cultural Approaches to Emotion, Media and Popular Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 34-53.


My thanks to Iain MacRury for pointing out the Johnson ‘Samson moment’.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. An extended version of some of the themes raised here can be found in: Yates, C. (2018) ‘On the psychodynamics of Boris Johnson and Brexit’, New Associations, (25): 4-5.

Candida Yates is Professor of Culture and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK. She is a Director (with Caroline Bainbridge) of the research network Media and the Inner World and a Founding Scholar of the British Psychoanalytic Council. Her publications include: Political Leadership and the Psycho-Cultural Imagination (forthcoming, Routledge); The Play of Political Culture, Emotion and Identity (2015); Media and the Inner World: Psycho-Cultural Approaches to Emotion, Media and Popular Culture (co-ed, 2014), Television and Psychoanalysis (co-ed, 2013) Emotion: New Psychosocial Perspectives (co-ed, 2009); Culture and The Unconscious (co-ed, 2007) and Masculine Jealousy and Contemporary Cinema (2007). 

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