The continuing stand-off in the House of Commons is a complex mélange of partisan party competition, constitutional and territorial politics and personal ambition, and can be difficult to untangle, argues Hudson Meadwell (McGill University). How should we go about figuring out what is going on, and how can we provide some structure by which to think about the state of play in the Westminster Parliament? We likely cannot capture all of the possibilities in a situation such as this, but we should be able to make some progress, he writes.

The process of ratification of UK-EU negotiations broke down quickly in the House of Commons. The difficulties of ratification have brought one government down, led to an early general election and may lead to another. Ratification is nowhere in view now, even after the EU agreed to an extension of Article 50 until October 31st. In this blog, I’m going to consider some of the options that MPs face at this point and I’m going to begin by assuming that the EU will remain steadfast – no change to either the terms of the agreement or the withdrawal date. Then, I’ll consider the ‘outside options’ that actors in the House of Commons might have, aside from voting yea or nay in the ratification process.

I’m assuming that the House of Commons is composed of three groups with preferences on Brexit, independent of party label: Those whose first preference is for a deal (we can stipulate the deal as negotiated), those whose first preference is a no-deal exit and those whose first preference is to remain in the EU. Now let’s consider the fuller preference structures or preference orderings that we can attribute to individuals in each of these groups. Some simple notation might help.

Let: W represent Remain, Z represent Deal and Y represent No Deal. That becomes the choice set {W,Z,Y}. Let’s assume that all voters in the House hold preferences over all of the alternatives in this choice set. If a Remainer ranks Z and Y, her preference order would be: R: [W,Z,Y]. A No Dealer would have the preference structure ND: [Y,Z,W]. A (Take the) Deal preference order takes the form: TD: [Z,Y,W].

The Remain and No Deal preference orders, as presented above, are relatively straightforward to justify. One could make the argument that they order the alternatives along a single political dimension, roughly speaking the degree of change to the status quo ante (UK membership in the EU). Their preferences are mirror images in this regard.

The (Take the) Deal preference orders are more interesting. I’m going to concentrate on the first one [Z,Y,W] for reasons that should come to be apparent. In preferring a deal to either no deal or remain, these voters are thinking outside the political dimension of change to the status quo, strictly understood. Some other dimension of choice – some other consideration – is influencing their ordering. My view is that the now-visible existence of this group of voters and this preference ordering is simply a consequence of the results of negotiations, which revealed two things.

One is that Brexit is not a simple binary choice and, second, negotiations have revealed the costs that can be anticipated in association with a non-binary choice. This is why for this group I have ordered No Deal before Remain [Y,W].  ‘Take the Dealers’ are supporters of Brexit, hence Remain is ranked last. But they are sensitive to the costs of exit and this is why they prefer Deal to No Deal – because of the costs they anticipate will be associated with a hard break, a hard Brexit.

To draw a rough analogy, then, these orderings and the rationale behind them are much like the orderings of preferences in a minority nation over how much political decentralization to support. This could be one way to understand some of the support for the Take the Deal preference ordering. These are Leave supporters who are sensitive to the costs of no-deal withdrawal. In some alternative world in which withdrawal is costless, or its costs are lower than their sensitivity threshold, they could consistently hold a No Deal preference order. But when costs – that extra dimension – are introduced, they support Take the Deal. There is no world in which they would support Remain. But I also think of these voters, if faced with a choice between No Deal and Remain, with abstention not allowed, as supporting No Deal. They will bear the costs of No Deal if to do otherwise means voting for Remain. This would suggest that the distribution of power is their primary consideration and the costs of withdrawal are secondary – anticipated costs have important consequences for choice but they enter their calculations secondarily.

This is one subset of support for Take The Deal. But I note as well that supporters of Remain, if faced with a choice between Deal and No Deal, a choice in which Remain is not an alternative (and abstention is ruled out), prefer Deal to No Deal.

My discussion is not, however, a simple extension of the standard spatial model of voting and social choice, associated with the classic work of Duncan Black, Kenneth Arrow and Anthony Downs, for example (although I have considered this approach). These names may seem dated but spatial models and social choice analysis are alive and well. In these analytical models and many of their spin-offs, voters cast their votes, on a one-off basis, straightforwardly and sincerely for the alternative that is closest to their ideal (preferred) point on some political dimension or issue. The alternatives they choose from are typically exogenous givens; in addition, there is no strategic voting and voters do not have outside options. One of the key questions in this work is whether, or under what assumptions, there is a ‘Condorcet point’ (the median voter in the canonical spatial model extension of work by Black and Arrow on voting in committees and social choice).

However, the existence or not of a Condorcet point/winner or the presence of a voting cycle is not the point in my discussion, given the assumptions I make.  In my argument, voters (MPs), first of all, have outside options – there are more organizational options than just voting yea or nay – and, second, they are allowed to vote strategically. (I consider some of the implications shortly). Neither of these features, however, is characteristic of a spatial voting model. Indeed, if you allow strategic voting and outside options, the Condorcet point or median voter result will disappear. But my analysis is not about the existence or not of a Condorcet point; it is not about identifying a voting cycle (a ‘Condorcet paradox’) in Parliament. I treat post-referendum Brexit as more of a bargaining problem than a problem of how votes are aggregated.

These two differences from canonical models, stemming from my introduction of strategic voting and outside options, are related to a third. In my discussion, voters can possibly change alternatives on which they are voting. In effect, if enough voters with similar ideal points can coordinate their votes, they can move an alternative closer to their ideal point. The organizational context matters here. The alternatives voters are considering in the ratification process are outcomes of a negotiating process at an organizational level outside Parliament, but these outcomes are not fully exogenous to voters in Parliament. Instead, they are partially, and indirectly, endogenous in this sense: In ratification, one might vote against an alternative reached in negotiations to force further negotiations that might yield a different agreement to vote on, one that you prefer. In contrast, alternatives are typically exogenous givens in standard spatial models.  In the next section, I elaborate further.

Outside options

The first outside option is the EU. This is an option that can introduce strategic voting into the ratification process. The logic here is pretty clear: one rejects a negotiated offer during ratification on the expectation that negotiations can be resumed and a better EU offer obtained. Hence, the incentive for the EU to make its commitment to the negotiated deal as credible as possible. What this means, though, is that some expressions of support or votes for No Deal are strategic expressions/votes.

Once this strategic door is opened, the field of strategic choice and the ‘knock-on’ consequences become enlarged. For instance, one could couple strategic support for No Deal to a public expression of being willing to withdraw without an agreement rather than accept current terms, seeking to induce further concessions from the EU.

That then can induce a commitment game with the EU that is structured by the comparative credibility of the claims and commitments the two parties make about their future behaviour. And the more public and the stronger the commitment to leaving without an agreement, the harder it is to back down without losing reputation, raising the prospect that you will be left with an outcome (No Deal) that is not your first preference. The potential loss of face, however, can sometimes be managed, particularly if for her own private reasons your negotiating opponent allows you to dial back your public position rather than holding you to your public rhetoric. This is not always as simple as one party holding steadfast, and calling out a threat by the other party as a bluff. Instead, this can be a form of mutual collaboration that will be privately pursued rather than in public view.

Let’s think about how this might work in general terms. One party (EU) calculates that the public commitment to leave without a deal is not credible and signals that to the other party (Leavers whose real preference is Deal but are threatening No Deal to try and force better terms). The first party (EU) also signals that it is willing to make small changes to the agreement to allow the other party to save some public face if public threats are abandoned and Deal is supported.

There are several difficulties in achieving and stabilizing this kind of fairly delicate post-negotiation collaboration, one of which is whether the EU would take such steps if it fears being seen as weak in doing so. Another is assessing how many No Deal supporters are sincere and how many are strategic supporters. Also to note, on this argument, the EU needs what I called ‘private reasons’ to collaborate in this way. A belief that a significant portion of publicly-expressed support for No Deal is strategic when coupled with an interest in getting closure on negotiations, might constitute sufficient ‘private reason’.

In general terms, the likelihood of these kinds of settlements of differences depends on comparative bargaining positions of the two parties which, again in general terms, varies partly with which party will bear the most costs if withdrawal without a deal occurs. My view continues to be that the costs of withdrawal – both transition and long-term costs – are likely to be much more significant for the UK than the EU.

The other two outside options are based on the organisational logic of the House of Commons. They are different ways of shutting down the current ratification process altogether. One is to force a general election and that, in turn, can happen in two ways: one is for the opposition to force and win a no-confidence motion which sets in motion a conventional [but not fixed-in-stone] path to a general election. The other is for the government to call an early election. These are options probably attractive to actors who fear they cannot win a ratification vote, and may even be left with their least-preferred alternative, and seek to both buy time and to use the election to change the distribution of preference orderings in the House of Commons. The no-confidence option may also function as a blocking move to forestall withdrawal without a deal but this is conditioned on several other considerations – the timing of the election, and EU responses in particular. There are some signs as well that some Remainers see a no-confidence vote as an opportunity to campaign in an election for a second referendum.

The strategic value of the early (‘snap’) election option for the government (and hence for Leavers) is ambiguous. One might call an election in the hope that a Conservative majority government, particularly one that was reconfigured, having shed its few Remainers MPs, and some of its Take the Deal MPs via an election, would have a stronger bargaining position and force the EU to negotiate a better agreement than the one presented in the House of Commons in its several iterations by May. This is consistent with strategic support for No Deal; calling an early election is meant to (try to) force the hand of the EU, but timing is again a problem.

The second of these two outside options is prorogation. Johnson has now asked for a suspension of Parliament – the purpose of suspension presumably being to shorten the parliamentary window before withdrawal is set to happen, and remove parliamentary pressure on the government from both Remainers and sincere No Deal leavers, while the UK and the EU privately seek a path toward mutual collaboration as I laid out above. Under this scenario, when Parliament returns, there might be a deal to debate that replaces the May agreement. And the deadline may loom even larger psychologically after resumption than it did before prorogation.

In all of these outside options, all roads still lead back to the EU. In the event of an election, the problem of ratification of an agreement is still there waiting to be resolved. The government is very likely going to have to put up some deal at some point for approval in the Commons. But which deal will be agreed to by the EU? And when those who support dissolution and an election, whether by non-confidence or a snap election, anticipate (wish) that the EU will be willing to renegotiate the terms of an agreement with a government different than this one, they are acknowledging EU-controlled constraints on their choices. Even now Parliament will be prorogued, and if withdrawal occurs without a deal, there is the existential problem of sorting out relations with the EU, whether the results of that sorting (bargaining and negotiations by any other name) are packaged in one or multiple post-Brexit agreements. The EU has set the agenda in the Commons from the referendum until now. It’s not going away. ‘Brexit’ is a long way from being over.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It was amended on 6 September by the author. Image by Herry LawfordSome rights reserved.

Hudson Meadwell is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University.

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