Posted by on July 10, 2016

It has been “all change” on the UK political scene since the Brexit vote.

The bromance between Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, the two leaders of the Brexit campaign from the Conservative Party (aka, the “Tories”), was short-lived.  Johnson was on the verge of announcing his candidacy to replace David Cameron as the Tory leader, expecting to have the support of Gove, when Gove instead announced that, on close inspection, Johnson did not have the qualities to lead the nation.  This after the two were seen, arms on shoulders and several sheets to the wind, the night before at a Brexit celebration party.  Instead, and despite years of denying any interest in the top slot, Gove announced that he was making the running for Tory leader.  Shortly thereafter, Johnson announced that he was not a candidate.

Thus the parallels between Johnson and his hero, the flamboyant and gifted but deeply flawed Winston Churchill, grow.  These will be Johnson’s “wilderness years.”  But, like Churchill, it would be unwise to count him out permanently.  Johnson is 52 years old.

The Tory leadership is decided in a two-step process.  First, the Tory MPs carry out multiple rounds of voting, with the lowest polling candidate being dropped in each round.  Then, when two candidates remain, the choice is thrown to the roughly 150,000 members of the Conservative Party.  To prevent last-minute membership stuffing, as allegedly happened to the Labour Party in the election that produced Jeremy Corbyn[1], recent party joiners are not allowed to vote.

Despite being the remaining face of the Brexit campaign, Gove paid for his treachery and was eliminated in the second round of MP voting, after a very lacklustre result in the first.  The two remaining candidates are Theresa May, the Home Secretary[2] in the Cameron government for the last six years, and Andrea Leadsom, who is the Minister of State for Energy, a junior role.  May is much better known and rated, and consistently led the voting among the MPs, garnering 199 out of the 329 votes cast in the last round.  Leadsom received 84.

The candidates now have roughly two months to take their cases to the Tory hustings.  Both the polls and bookies have May as a strong favorite, but we know how worthless these indicators have been lately.  Much of the campaign will revolve around Brexit.  May was a Remain supporter, but a low-key one.  She has pledged to heed the results of the referendum (“Brexit is Brexit” was her summary) and has argued that her greater experience, and her reputation as a “safe pair of hands,” make her best suited to negotiate the separation from the EU.  Leadsom was a Brexit supporter and she split that group with Gove, which probably means that she enjoys greater support than her 84 votes would indicate.  In any event, support for Brexit is stronger among ordinary Tories than the MPs.

One of the key issues is turning out to be the mechanics of EU separation.  In order to leave, the UK must initiate divorce proceedings under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.  Once triggered, this article gives the leaving country and the EU two years[3] to negotiate the terms of leaving, covering such things as the ceasing of payments to and from the EU and the withdrawal from EU decision making.  Very importantly, the Article 50 process does not address the future relationship between the withdrawing country and the EU.  Which means that any negotiations about access to the EU markets will have to proceed in parallel, if at all.

David Cameron has said that he would not trigger Article 50 during his lame-duck period.  Theresa May, assuming that she is the new leader, has made very clear that she wants to have as much clarity as possible, as early as possible, about the future relationship between the UK and the EU, ideally before triggering the article.  The leaders of the EU countries are taking different positions on this subject.  Angela Merkel, the Procrastinator-in-Chief[4], originally claimed that there would be no talks, formal or informal, before Britain invoked Article 50, but lately she seems to be softening this line.

My guess is that at least informal talks on the relationship between the UK and the EU will take place both prior to invoking Article 50 and in parallel with its negotiations, although the EU will be continuously torn between trying to minimize Brexit damage and encouraging other EU departures.  So, the pace of discussions will depend on things like the extent of the Brexit fallout on the EU economies and the financial markets, and the success of anti-EU movements in forthcoming votes, such as the re-vote for the Austrian presidency[5] and the referendum on constitutional reform in Italy.

Returning to the title of this blog post, this time delay creates the potential path to Bremain.  There are already signs of buyers’ remorse among the UK electorate, especially those young people who sat out the vote thinking that Remain was a shoo-in.  The leaders of the Brexit campaign almost immediately started walking back some of their promises, particularly on immigration[6] and additional funding for the National Health Service, a sacred cow in UK politics.  The Labour Party was also shocked by the large turnout of its traditional supporters for Brexit, contrary to the party line.  Labour is attempting to defenestrate Jeremy Corbyn for this and his multitude of other sins, although Corbyn refuses to heed the beautifully delivered parliamentary admonition of David Cameron: “For heaven’s sake man, go!”

Above all, the passage of time will make the divisions in the Brexit camp clearer.  As I have noted before, although many of the leaders of the Brexit campaign presented it as an opportunity for a liberated England to engage with the broader world, the rank-and-file Brexit voters were motivated by nativism, a disdain for all elites (and not just the foreign ones), and anti-globalization.  There is a good chance that one or the other part of this odd coalition could ultimately find itself more comfortable with Remain than with its Brexit bedfellows.

And, of course, the biggest porky pie[7]of the Brexit campaign will become obvious as the negotiations with the EU progress.  The Brexiteers claimed that they would be able to arrange free access to the EU markets, which account for roughly 50% of UK exports, without having to accept EU rules, especially in relationship to the free movement of people.  The Brexit supporters will be rapidly disabused of this idea.  This, combined with a likely economic downturn in the UK due to Brexit uncertainties and some headlines about Brexit-related job losses, could turn the slim majority for Brexit into the reverse over the course of the next two-plus years.  The Brexit referendum, which is not legally binding, could then be overturned by, for example, a general election campaign seeking an explicit mandate to Remain.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not claiming that this is very likely, at least not yet.  But Theresa May would be well advised to anticipate this possibility.  She should, as she already plans, try to achieve as much clarity on the future status of the UK as possible.  She should also appoint someone to lead the EU negotiations who has impeccable Leave credentials, so that she cannot be accused of sandbagging.  It would be interesting to see if Gove would be offered, and would take, the job.

For its part, the EU could make it easier for the Prodigal Son by using the time to reform itself and turn away from its centralizing tendencies.  The EU should have done this when Cameron came calling prior to the referendum, but at the time this was viewed as yet more special pleading by the bothersome English.  Perhaps with the shock of Brexit and the advance of other anti-EU movements, Brussels now realizes that this is a matter of self-preservation.

Of course, the most important thing that the EU has to do in order to be able to welcome back the UK is to continue to exist.  This is not a foregone conclusion.  As I have pointed out before, there are many, many fault lines running through Europe, notably in Italy.  The Economist joins me this week with a cover page that reads “The Italian job – Europe’s next crisis.”  Rome, the Eternal City…of crisis.


A quick update on the Gary Johnson campaign for the presidency.  And the news is mixed, at best.

The polls continue to be reasonably good, showing Johnson getting about 10% of the vote.  At this point, this has to be considered very squishy.  It has, however, translated into strong media coverage, which the Libertarian Party (LP) has never experienced before.

The problem is that Johnson is not doing a great job taking advantage of the media opening.  A case in point in the recent Libertarian Town Hall broadcast by CNN (the full 80-minute video of which is here).  Johnson’s performance was good in parts but mostly bad.

There were two particularly weak moments.  The first was when he was asked a question about drug decriminalizing from the audience, by a woman whose son had drugged himself into a vegetative state.  Johnson expressed his condolences and then he waffled, including saying that the LP only wanted to decriminalize marijuana.

Instead, he should have expressed his condolences and then pointed out how the case of her son is exactly why all drugs should be decriminalized.  After 40 years of the war on drugs, her son obviously didn’t have any trouble finding a supplier; 40 more years would not change this.  But what would change is that the adulterated drugs that had actually destroyed her son would be replaced by pharmaceutical qualities.  And as to the risk that this would lead to more drug abuse, Johnson could have simply pointed to the examples of Zurich, the Netherlands and Portugal, countries that have already gone down the road of decriminalization without causing epidemics.  Or, for that matter, the early results from Colorado.

The second moment was even worse.  In a lightning round, Johnson was asked to respond to “President Obama” and “Hillary Clinton.” For Obama, he responded “good guy.”  For Clinton, he responded something like “dedicated civil servant.”  I almost fell out of my chair.

Having met Johnson at the LP Convention, I can say that he is a genuinely nice guy.  Too nice.  But even a nice guy should understand that there is a difference between going negative on a person and going negative on a person’s policies.  For Obama, he could have said something like “good guy…but wrong.”  For Clinton…well, for Clinton, there really is nothing nice to say about either the person or the policies, but he could have focussed, for example, on her war-mongering.  These responses would have created opportunities to put some sizable distance between Johnson and the current administration.  Instead, he left the impression that he would be OK with more of the same.

If you want something done right….

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom

I Wish That I Had Said That…

“We have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by and of the people.  But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?” by Ronald Reagan in his first inauguration speech

“Break classification rules for the public’s benefit, and you could be exiled.  Do it for personal benefit, and you could be President” by Edward Snowden in a tweet after the FBI announcement about Hillary Clinton’s emails

“In meetings, I would ask, ‘Can I just finish the two wars we’re already in before you go looking for new ones?’” by Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense under President Obama, referring to Secretary of State Clinton’s penchant for going abroad in search of monsters to destroy


[1] In the Labour Party elections, there were wide-spread rumours of Conservatives joining the party just to vote for Corbyn, whom the Tories thought was a sure loser in the general election.  There were similar rumours in some of the primaries where Democrats and Republicans were thought to be crossing over to vote for spoilers like Trump or Sanders.

[2] Home Secretary is one of the leading ministerial positions, responsible for the internal affairs of the UK, such as policing, immigration/citizenship, and “homeland” security.

[3] A time period that can be extended with the agreement of both sides.  It is unclear whether Article 50, once triggered, can be reversed by the joint consent of the two parties, although I have to believe that a way would be found.

[4] Merkel is a champion at delaying tough political decisions.  Her instinct for this has been furthered by the result of the lone bold political move she has ever made, which was putting out the welcome mat for the refugees, something that she will doubtlessly regret more and more.

[5] As you may recall, a right-wing, anti-EU candidate was very narrowly defeated for the largely ceremonial office of President of Austria in a vote in May.  The highest court in Austria has ruled, however, that there were sufficient irregularities in this vote that is has to be re-run in October.

[6] Of the roughly 330,000 net immigrants to the UK last year, only about half came from EU countries under the “freedom of movement.”  The rest were unaffected by EU membership and were let in, for example, because the City of London requires access to foreign talent if it is going to retain its leadership in finance.  Without EU immigrants, the construction and healthcare industries would collapse – as would most of the new buildings if the country had to rely on English workmanship.  The Brexiteers quickly confirmed that the “needs of industry” would have to be reflected in any post-EU immigration policy, something that they did not exactly trumpet during the campaign.

[7] A “porky pie” is a lie.  This comes from Cockney rhyming slang.  For a quick explanation of this slang, I recommend this clip from the classic film To Sir With Love.

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2 Comments on "A Path to Bremain"

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Hans van der Weide
Dear Roger, Because of football matters, just reed your up date on Garry Johnson. I have seen the CNN interview too and felt the same about his performance and answers as you mentioned. Also think to come up the stage with a Vice President candidate in the person of Weild is not very strong, this Weild guy took to much over and not in a pleasant way! Why come up with a running mate at this early stage? After this interview I thought … Johnson no change. This brings me to you! What about 2020? I’m sure when you start… Read more »