Passthebuxit: Why the Tories Might Want the Worst Possible Brexit

Brexit might not go smoothly, we’re told. It might well be totally catastrophic, with peace, environmental protection, jobs, human rights and so much more under severe threat.

Something is bothering me more and more, something people don’t seem to be waking up to, so I thought I’d write about it. That something is the fact that it might be in the UK Government’s interest for it to go badly.

What we need to think about is that politicians like May want, above most other things, to be seen as having been a success. One measure of that is if May can win another General Election afterwards. This is clearly a very tall order, and to spell it out, let’s look at how the options pan out for them:

Option 1: A People’s Vote.

Either

  • the deal is accepted, in which case we go ahead with Brexit and lots of things go wrong, people get angry and blame the UK Government.
  • the deal is rejected and we have a no deal Brexit, in which case May has to resign in embarrassment.
  • the deal is rejected and the whole Brexit thing is scrapped, in which case May has to resign in embarrassment. Woohoo!

Option 2: The “Best Possible Deal”. AKA The UK Government try and negotiate the fullest deal possible, and that gets accepted by Parliament. This way, the half of us who didn’t want Brexit are still not content, neither are the Brexit fundamentalists, to whom most elements of a deal = working together with the EU = not proper Brexit. And it still won’t go well, meaning the knives are out for May.

Option 3: Brexit means no deal. Either they try and negotiate something, which fails, or they give up on a deal. The Brexit supporters who were hoping for a deal, for many good reasons, are angry and May’s future is untenable.

Option 4: Let Corbyn deal with it. Must be tempting for the Tories, but can you imagine the shame involved?

There are probably mixtures and variations on these options, but you get the idea.

In the highly alarming parallel universe in which I was a cynical Tory strategist, I’d be trying an age-old trick. If the game you’re playing is unwinnable, change the game. Reframe the whole thing in a way in which you can win.

I can think of one way of doing this that might appeal to them and may be a route to staying in Government. If they privately accept that it’s going to be a total mess, but do everything the can to make sure they don’t get the blame. And who is easier to blame in the eyes of the British public than the European Union themselves? Let’s call this Passthebuxit.

Suppose May et al can peddle the idea that “the EU are being unreasonable and that is why everything is going to be a mess”, then everyone will be expecting chaos and a lot of people will rally round that British state in times of adversity as they go about their crisis management. It would make May very hard to challenge within the Tory Party and — if they get the PR right — she could go into the next election promoting herself as the defender of the nation against those nasty Brussels.

Passthebuxit doesn’t need to be based on fact: if a convenient populist message is repeated enough, the people will believe it. The EU negotiators can do pretty much anything for the next 6 months, and if the UK Government and right wing press tell people to blame them, it’s highly likely the 40% of voters the Tories need will believe that.

And this is the way things are going. If you’re not sure, have a look at May’s announcement the other week. If this isn’t the first strike in a 6 month campaign of “they’re being unreasonable and everything is their fault” I don’t know what is.

Why we should be really scared about Passthebuxit

The first frightening aspect is that this plan is more effective the worse Brexit works out. If there is total chaos, people have more reasons to be angry and more people will join in the Government’s whipped-up outrage.

So, in popularity terms, could it be counter-productively in the Government’s interest to get the worst possible deal? Actively seeking that would be very very cynical, literally playing politics with people’s lives and livelihoods, and I’d like to think that the worst realistic scenario is that the Government continue negotiations in good faith (though wrong priorities) and have Passthebuxit up their sleeve. But it’s not that “playing politics with people’s lives and livelihoods” is something we’ve not seen from a Government before- look at the recent history of immigration policy or drug policy, for example.

And can you imagine how toxic a Passthebuxit would make our politics and the country? It would create a wave of British/English nationalism, complete with a common scapegoat for many, and a culture of mistrust of Europeans. The levels of xenophobia, racism and conspiracy theory would be raised. There would be a polarisation between “Little Englanders” and the “enemies of the state”.

Northern Ireland deserves special mention. What this outcome would do — with the added atmosphere of pro-London jingoism — to Northern Ireland is very grave indeed.

And we need to look out for a “Shock Doctrine” type reaction to a post-Brexit crisis in which people get behind their Government and give them a blank cheque to do things they’d never otherwise get away with. Can we expect to see additional attacks on public services, human rights and the welfare state, to pick a few, all in the name of “cleaning up the mess we’ve been left in”?

What we can do in response.

The main thing we can learn is to be aware that this is a likely tactic, to scrutinise what happens and to call it out as a political game that will throw so many people — overwhelmingly the most vulnerable ones — under a bus. The negotiations need to be as transparent as possible so that we can see, and demonstrate exactly what happened.

And we need to learn the lesson that damaging cynicism like Passthebuxit is made so much more possible where we have an old fashioned centralised, First Past The Post British state with a powerful Government and a small number of owners of influential tabloids.

Just putting that out there. I hope I’m wrong.