“All politics is bargaining.” “All politics is local.” Putting those two ideas together helps explain the United Kingdom’s June 23 Brexit vote.
In Cornwall, a rural county in southern England, citizens voted overwhelmingly to “Leave” the European Union. The Cornish, no fans of Brussels bureaucrats and E.U. regulations, woke up the next day worried whether the British government would step in to replace the millions of pounds of annual E.U. subsidies they have been receiving since the U.K. voted to join the E.U. in 1975.
Ever since there have been governments in the “center” doling out resources, recipients on the “periphery” have feigned disinterest, or even been hostile to the central government. That is what one does when one bargains.
So people who are bargaining make statements that undervalue what they stand to receive — rather than express the extent to which they are grateful or dependent on their patrons. And it’s not surprising for the people doling out resources to make statements extolling the value of what they tender, or reminding the recipients that they could get along just fine without them.
But when the parties to a bargain are groups, things get complicated. For example, if the leaders of the group on the periphery can convince their members that they can live without the “pittance” being doled out from the center, they can turn around and credibly threaten that their “people” are willing to walk away from the bargaining table unless the pittance gets bigger.
Be careful what you pretend to wish for.
It’s not so easy to get voters to coordinate their behavior in such a manner that guarantees they send the desired signal (such as 49 percent in favor of “Remain”), rather than a signal that is slightly stronger than intended (such as 52 percent in favor of “Leave”). For example, if 100 percent of the electorate thought the best outcome of the election was for “Remain” to win in a close vote (which would signal to the E.U. that if they did not receive further concessions, they would almost certainly leave in the future), more than 30 million U.K. voters would have to decide who should vote sincerely to “Remain” and who should vote strategically to “Leave.”
In the real world, where a bloc of voters sincerely wish to “Leave,” and the size of that bloc is not known with certainty, the coordination required for successful strategic behavior is even more complicated. While voters can use opinion polls to guess what others are going to do on the day of the election, opinion polls typically come with margins of error that are big enough to swing an optimally close “Remain” into an accidental “Leave.” Further, for voters to use such polls with confidence, they have to accept the idea that the responses to polls are sincere revelations of vote intention, which is not likely to be the case if a sizeable portion of the electorate is acting strategically. It is easy to see how brinksmanship in groups can go horribly wrong.
What’s the next-best deal?
So if Cornish and other U.K. voters actually pressed their point too far, the next step in the bargaining process is to go back to the bargaining table, feign contrition and try to get the best deal still possible. Many of the “Leave” camp’s leaders have begun to question when and whether Article 50, which would start a two-year exit process, should be triggered. For example, London’s former mayor, Boris Johnson, a vocal supporter of the “Leave” initiative is suddenly arguing that there is “no need for haste.”
In the meantime, the growing rift within the Conservative Party that caused Prime Minster David Cameron to propose the referendum is likely to become an all-out melee as the party tries to choose its new leader. In years past, the prime minister might have called an early election in the hope of shifting the balance of power in the legislative delegation of his or her own party. But since the Fixed Parliaments Act of 2011, early elections can occur in only two ways, and both are acts of Parliament. Either two-thirds of the House of Commons votes for an early election, or a simple majority declares that “this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government” and no alternative government is confirmed with 14 days.
Instead, Cameron announced his resignation shortly after the Brexit votes were in and left the choice of the new party leader and the next prime minister to his Tory Party leadership and, eventually, the membership of the party. The process is likely to be at least as fractious as the campaigns for and against Brexit, but is expected to eventually lead to a choice from the more Euro-skeptic side of the Conservative Party.
Is it even possible to undo the vote?
While the Brexit vote was merely advisory — Parliament has to vote to under Britain’s treaty commitments — is it politically feasible that the Parliament would ignore “the voice of the people?” Perhaps.
A key question is whether the prime minister that emerges from the Conservative Party’s internal struggle will possess both the legitimacy and the votes to enact legislation that will shape the future of the United Kingdom in ways as profound as any legislation since the Act of Union in 1707 — which brought England and Scotland together.
In the absence of new elections, the head of government responsible for negotiating the nation’s withdrawal from the European Union will represent only part of a deeply divided party (much less than a majority of the electorate) and will possess no direct electoral mandate. This is not a setting where swift and decisive action is likely to be forthcoming.
In any case, it is still possible that a new Parliament will get to decide these issues. While a majority of voters chose Brexit, the majority of the current Parliament favor “Remain.” This majority is composed of members of the opposition Labour and Liberal-Democratic parties, but also includes the business-international wing of the Conservative Party, the current party in power. If these three groups joined forces to push for a no-confidence vote, this could then trigger a new general election.
Why would a general election make sense now?
Given the economic chaos following the Brexit vote, it’s not likely that an election in the near future would return the Tories to power. So why would even the most disillusioned members of the party vote to bring one about?
Before answering that question, we need to point out that political scientists tend to think of elected officials in either of two ways: They either make policy to get elected, or they get elected in order to make policy.
In either scenario, it might make sense for business internationalists within the Conservative party to help take down the current government. Members of Parliament who make policy in order to get elected might reason that retaining power in an impossibly difficult post-Brexit environment will only delay the inevitable: a huge Tory loss in the next scheduled election in 2020. Better to take their medicine now and run against a Labour Party in five years that will have spent most of that time cleaning up the current mess.
Similarly, members of Parliament who seek to get elected to make policy might see an immediate electoral defeat at the hands of Labour as their best chance of reclaiming their party during the next scheduled election five years hence.
If another government does inherit the Brexit process from the Tories, it is quite possible that it would assert that it is not constrained by the results of the June 23 vote. While Britain’s “people have spoken,” a future government that does not include Tories might argue along two lines to remain part of the E.U. First, they would point out that it was the Tories’ lack of judgment and unwillingness to address divisions in their own party that led to a vote that many voters already regret. Second, if the future government wins an election running against the “Leave” vote, they can claim that by electing a new government, “the people” have spoken once again.