Friday , April 19 2019
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Why are we in this political mess?

Summary:
I am sick and tired of being told that the 2016 referendum gave the government a mandate to leave the EU. It did not. It did not because it did not specify a method of leaving. The Leave campaign was all over the place on how we would leave, and deliberately so. It maximised their vote. It was Cameron’s failure not to see that. He could so easily have made it a condition for holding a referendum that the Leave side put together a coherent, independently assessed and costed plan for leaving, but he didn’t. That, together with austerity, will be his legacy. I heard a good comparison the other day. Some colleagues after work decide it would be great to go out together for a meal. They all agree enthusiastically. That is decided they say. But then someone asks where they should go to eat. One

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I am sick and tired of being told that the 2016 referendum gave the government a mandate to leave the EU. It did not. It did not because it did not specify a method of leaving. The Leave campaign was all over the place on how we would leave, and deliberately so. It maximised their vote. It was Cameron’s failure not to see that. He could so easily have made it a condition for holding a referendum that the Leave side put together a coherent, independently assessed and costed plan for leaving, but he didn’t. That, together with austerity, will be his legacy.

I heard a good comparison the other day. Some colleagues after work decide it would be great to go out together for a meal. They all agree enthusiastically. That is decided they say. But then someone asks where they should go to eat. One says definitely not Indian. Another says they are fed up with Italian food. And so on: whatever it is someone says they definitely don’t want to go there. But they all agree they must all eat together. They end up calling the whole thing off.

The lack of a specific plan agreed in the referendum would not have mattered if one of two conditions were true. The first is that everyone who voted to Leave preferred all forms of leaving to staying in the EU. That clearly is not true. The second was that the majority to leave was so large, and stayed large, such that whatever form was eventually chosen commanded a majority. In reality the majority to leave was small, and polls now show a much larger majority wanting to stay. As a result, the first referendum in itself demands a People's Vote.

The logic of this is clear. Once you add in the fact that more Leavers than Remainers are changing their mind and the case for a People’s Vote is overwhelming. More people don’t laugh when Brexiters say a People’s Vote would be undemocratic because the Brexiters and the Brexit press are shouting so loud people find it hard to think. What is happening in parliament reflects these divisions within the country. It is impossible to get a majority for any form of Brexit in parliament, just as there is no majority for any form of Brexit in the country.

Parliament does differ from sentiment in the country for one reason: MPs are clearly intimidated either by the referendum vote itself, the Brexit press or the Brexit majority in their constituency. This gave Theresa May an opportunity. If she had understood what the closeness of the result meant, she would see that at best there was only a mandate for the softest of Brexits. I think she could have got that through parliament, especially if she had held cross-party talks before invoking Article 50 to agree a plan. The Brexiters would have huffed and puffed, but May would have got a deal passed with Labour’s help.

We all know what she actually did. One consequence of that was both sides hardened their positions. A key mistake in a long litany of errors was to believe that ‘No Deal is better than a bad deal’ was a good bargaining ploy. The EU saw it was nonsense, but it gave Brexiters hope that they could actually get No Deal. That in turn led to two heavy defeats in parliament. Thanks to the Brexit press Project Fear applies to anything negative said about leaving the EU, so many voters think having a ‘clean break’ sounds like a good idea.

This hardening of positions means that the current negotiations are extremely dangerous for May and Labour. But May has nothing to lose except her legacy. Labour have everything to lose. Too many Lexiters within Labour have the attitude that Remainers have nowhere else to go. That was never true, as they could always not vote or not campaign. Alternatives have no increased with the creation of UKC and a Lib Dem party that is no longer a party of austerity. To throw away the next election for the sake of not having a People’s Vote does merit the use of the word betrayal. Betrayal not just of Remainers, but also of all those people that want or depend on Labour winning the next election.

Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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