Is Brexit a policy deception? Were voters deceived during the Brexit referendum? Darrin Baines, Sharron Brewer, and Adrian Kay examine how political, process and programme failures combined to create a fiasco that misled many voters into believing that Leave was an actual, and easily deliverable, policy option. This blog summarizes the analysis originally outlined in their recently published paper, “Political, process and programme failures in the Brexit fiasco: exploring the role of policy deception”, in the Journal of European Public Policy’s special issue on the Brexit fiasco.
During the 2019 general election, Boris Johnson’s rallying call was “Get Brexit Done”, with the implication that: (i) Leave was a real, deliverable policy option, and (ii) Parliament, the EU and Remainers were obstructing the Conservative government’s attempts to exit Europe. The Brexit withdrawal agreement came into effect on 1 February 2020, but Brexit as a policy terminus still to be determined: profound policy questions from the protection of social rights to the workings of the British regulatory state do not have answers. Far from suggesting that Brexit has been done, the uncertainties associated with the current transition period and beyond suggest that Leave is a policy deception that has fooled voters and is proving near impossible to deliver in the ways suggested at the 2016 poll.
The Leave referendum option has been so hard to deliver because voters were deceived. Cameron’s government, guided by the Electoral Commission, included Leave on the 2016 ballot paper when this alternative had not been properly planned, negotiated or agreed. Leave was an empty vessel, and voters who believed this alternative was a real, viable policy pathway were misled.
Brexit is a policy fiasco. The word ‘fiasco’ is theatre slang for ‘failure in performance’. The Brexit fiasco was caused by the combination of three interrelated political failures: (i) the failure of Cameron’s political performance, (ii) the UK government’s failure to complete the institutional processes necessary for exiting the EU, and (iii) the failure to deliver the required policy programmes.
The etymology of the word suggests that these political, process and policy failures involved deception. The term ‘fiasco’ originally derived from the Italian phrase to ‘make a bottle’. A ‘fiasco’ is a type of round-bottomed Italian bottle with its own tight-fitting straw basket. In 1574, Italy’s government started to certify the vessel’s contents with a lead seal applied to its outer straw casing. In order to deceive customers, producers started re-using their certified baskets on vessels containing less liquid so that greater profits could be made.
The UK’s Electoral Commission was tasked with choosing two official campaign groups that could be trusted to fill the two ‘standard-sized’ Brexit options fairly. By choosing ‘Britain Stronger In’ (‘Remain’) and ‘Vote Leave’ (‘Leave’), the Electoral Commission put its seal of approval on their campaigns. This may have supported the belief that they were both trustworthy and viable policy pathways. Many voters were unable to see through the ‘straw casing’ created by the Electoral Commission’s approval of Vote Leave as the official exit campaign, which stopped them seeing that the Leave option was an empty vessel, a policy deceit.
The Brexit referendum allowed voters to choose between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’, supposedly two equivalent ‘vessels’ containing different political contents. If these ballot options were the same ‘size’, then the electoral process would be democratic and the choices equal. However, Leave was a baseless referendum option with no intrinsic policy value and could not automatically be cashed-in for any agreed set of policies or political outcomes.
There was a misconception that, because it appeared on the ballot paper, the Leave option was backed by ‘something’ in policy terms; designs of a UK successfully functioning outside the institutions of the EU. The Brexit referendum resulted in a process failure because the Conservative government was unable to deliver the baseless Leave option in a timely, efficient manner. Voters were systematically deceived by the promise of post-EU institutional arrangements backed by the necessary political, legal and economic arrangements. In 2016, neither did these arrangements exist nor were plans put into place for their eventuality.
Cameron failed to put the policy procedures in place to create a viable exit plan, secure agreement for that plan from other EU member countries or have a clear and deliverable way to deliver the Leave option. It was a systematic deception that misled voters into believing that the official alternative to Remain was backed by something. Given the lack of details about the type, nature and outcomes of policy programmes after an exit, Vote Leave deceived voters by suggesting imaginary political changes with imaginary socio-economic consequences.
The Brexit programme failure has its foundations in the political promises made by Vote Leave. The lack of pre-agreed terms for Britain’s exit meant that Vote Leave could invent their own policy programmes and designate their face value without fear of contradiction. They could print their own ‘baseless’ political currency.
Cameron’s failure to secure agreed terms for leaving before the referendum also allowed EU leaders to refuse to cash-in the UK’s exit decision at a value acceptable to the government, parliament and many of the electorate. Therefore, Brexit may only be deliverable at a substantial economic loss to the UK rather than producing the substantial benefits promised by the Leave campaign. As a result, there is likely to be a significant difference between the expected and realised benefits of Britain’s withdrawal. This cost will be incurred because the Leave option was not based upon an agreed set of policies, with a known value. This is like buying a bottle of wine without checking the volume of liquid first, only to find that it is less than full, with some expected contents missing.
In sum, Leave is a baseless policy deception that misled enough voters into believing that exiting the EU was a readily deliverable policy alternative that could automatically be delivered. As negotiations during the current transition period may highlight, this deception may be difficult to deliver because no one has yet clearly specified what the 2016 Leave option means, including Boris Johnson’s government, which has already declared that they’ve got Brexit done.