Could ‘no deal’ preparations shift opinion about Brexit?

Could ‘no deal’ preparations shift the opinion about Brexit? Maybe, but in unpredictable directions. The tactical problem for Remainers is whether emphasising no deal catastrophe turns the opinion against Brexit or turns the opinion in favour of any deal, no matter how dire...

As I remarked in a recent blog, the insistence by Brexiters that Britain should visibly increase planning for ‘no deal’ in order to ‘show the EU we mean business’ has had the curious effect that they are now complicit in articulating what they simultaneously dismiss as ‘Project Fear’.

It is indeed extraordinary that we now have a British government talking quite seriously about contingency plans to stockpile food and medicines in anticipation of something that could be a real possibility in just nine months’ time.

So much about Brexit is outrageous that it has almost lost its power to shock, but we shouldn’t become inured.

We’re actually talking about emergency preparations that may be needed not because of an unavoidable crisis being forced upon us but because of a policy the government thinks it is reasonable to pursue, if only as a fall back. Needless to say, nothing remotely like this is what was promised by the leave campaign just a couple of years’ ago, as Lewis Goodall of Sky News pointed out today.

This opens up the possibility for public opinion to shift decisively against Brexit. However, those hoping for such a shift need to understand that it cannot by any means be taken for granted.

The reasons for that are various. One, which is difficult for those who are deeply enmeshed in the issue to understand, is that many people just aren’t very interested in Brexit or heavily invested in it either way. Even those who may have been briefly engaged by the referendum are now in many cases bored. And that has inevitably become more so as the debates have become ever-more arcane and technical. Few can get worked up about the pros and cons of a Facilitated Customs Arrangement, for example.

As for the more general debate, it has just become repetitious and robotic. Few hearing that, say, we must ‘take back control of our borders, our money, and our laws’ will respond ‘gosh, that’s something new to think about’: they will respond positively or negatively as they have always done or, more likely, just tune it out.

However, the talk of emergency preparations adds a new, more dramatic and readily understandable dimension to things. Even so, many voters may just assume that in the end, they will sort things out; ‘they’, of course, being the much despised ‘political class’.

Committed Brexiters, though, have a rather different reaction as is evident on social media or in the comment sections of the pro-Brexit newspapers. For them – despite the point about this having been initiated by the Brexiters themselves – the project fear cliché is the first port of call. Beyond that, all the familiar litany of excuses as to why Brexiters bear no responsibility for Brexit kicks in. None of this would be happening if Brexit had been ‘properly done’, or hadn’t been ‘betrayed by remainers’. Or it is attributed to EU ‘punishment’ rather than being a consequence of Brexit. As an aside, it is a peculiar feature of Brexiter reasoning that we should leave the EU because it is a nasty, tyrannical mafia-like organization and, yet, we should expect it to be benevolent to a departing member. There’s a version of the same thing in Dominic Raab’s comment that the EU is irresponsible to be publishing its no deal plans, whereas it is eminently responsible for the UK to do so.

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All these are variants of the strange, circular Brexiter logic which I have discussed in detail elsewhere. In that logic, every new event is re-interpreted as proof that Brexit is right. Thus whereas before they argued that Brexit was easy, when it is shown to be difficult it ‘just goes to prove’ that Britain is far too enmeshed with the EU and so we have to leave. That goes right down to the level of food and medicine shortages in that the more extreme the consequences the more they ‘prove’ the need to leave. Plus, as I wrote in a previous piece but will repeat it (as I like the formulation) some – a minority, perhaps – will actually be excited by the chaos of a no deal, whether because of adolescent anarcho-liberal dreams of purification through crisis or Dad’s Army nostalgia for Lord Woolton Pie and digging for victory.

For those wedded to this ‘logic’, no event, no argument, no fact will make them change their mind. But it’s important not to make the same error that Brexiters make when they claim that all 17.4 million who voted leave were of the same mind and had the same intentions. That claim is manifestly nonsense and is made entirely dishonestly in order to urge a particular – invariably hard line – interpretation of the result.

By the same token, by no means all of the 17.4 million are trapped in the perverse logic that I’ve just outlined. Let’s say – this is only a guess – it is true for half of them. If so, it is the other half – those who have turned off and/or are open to changing their minds - who are now crucial. If, say, half of those came to the view that Brexit was a mistake, then that would represent a decisive shift in public opinion.

Yet at the same time it shouldn’t be assumed that all those who voted remain are, or ever were, rock solid remainers. Some of those will also have turned off, and others will have changed their minds. Some will, themselves, have been swayed by the ‘EU is punishing us’ narrative or be drawn to that view by the no deal contingency planning. Indeed it’s clear that Brexiters are now pitching exactly that narrative to people ‘regardless of how they voted’, as in a typically mendacious piece by Daniel Hannan in The Sun.

As things stand, opinion polls still show not far short of half the electorate would vote for Brexit again if there were a second referendum. True that means that remain would win, but we know that almost until the 2016 vote that looked to be the case: were there to be another vote after another no doubt equally duplicitous campaign the result might be the same. Crucially, without a sustained and significant change in the opinion polls there is little reason for politicians to sense a pressure from public opinion to change course.

In that context, the next few months represent a small window of possibility for the implications of no deal to sway opinion, especially if they continue to spelt out as starkly as has begun to be the case in the last few days. But it really is a very small window. There is barely enough time to see a sustained shift and even if it happened all the complexities of how that could lead to a different policy, or another referendum, remain as intractable as ever.

It should also be recognized that spelling out the fearful consequence of no deal has the potential to lead to a very bad outcome. That’s because, by contrast, any kind of deal could be greeted with relief. Suppose, for example, it led to something like the Chequers’ Proposal being the terms of exit (unlikely, of course, that the EU would agree it)? Or some other wretched fudge gets cobbled together. This might then be seen by MPs and the public as a kind of triumph even though it would, in fact, be hugely damaging. Moreover, it would please neither leavers nor remainers and do nothing to bring an end to the bitterness or even provide a stable basis for the future. Yet such a dismal scenario could be arrived at just for fear of something even worse.🔷

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(This piece was originally published on The Brexit Blog.)

(Cover: Dreamstime/Gavran333.)

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Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.

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