Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 2 June 2017

GE2017 and the stages of Leaver grief

After the Brexit vote, various people had fun talking about the stages of Remainer grief, going from denial through bargaining (we can still reverse this) to acceptance. But I think there is an analogous process for Leavers, where they begin to regret their decision and realise that they have made a serious mistake. For many of them we are in the bargaining stage, where somehow the situation can be retrieved as long as the negotiations with the EU are handled well. For them this is what the election is about.

We have to start with one interesting fact that should be noted more often. As YouGov’s Brexit tracker shows, the UK remains as divided on the issue of Brexit as it was a year ago. As I have noted before, this is slightly surprising, because over the last year it has become clear to most Leavers that Brexit will involve a cut in their standard of living, whereas before the vote most Leavers did not expect this and furthermore reported that they did not regard a cut in their living standards as a price worth paying to reduce immigration. But voting Leave was about much more than economics, so people are likely to be reluctant to admit they made a mistake that quickly. As Mark Twain said, “It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

Hence the stages of grief for Leavers. They have been led to believe, by newspapers and politicians, that as long as the negotiations are played right all will be well: the bargaining stage of grief. Unfortunately for them they are still living in the fantasy world created by the Brexit media and unchallenged by the broadcast media. The fantasy is to view the forthcoming EU negotiations as some great battle of wills. As Stephen Fisher notes, the negotiations are constantly framed in pugilistic terms. This is why the Conservatives are polling at around 45%, despite all the mistakes of the Tory campaign.

Hence, also, the attraction of the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ line. Leavers need to believe that walking away is a credible threat that will unlock the benefits of Brexit. But the reality is painfully different. If you want an eloquent explanation of this read Martin Wolf if you can, otherwise here is the short version. The EU knows that No Deal would be a disaster for the UK. It would be painful for the EU too, but not so painful as to make them offer the UK any significant favours. Their overriding objective is to ensure the UK will be worse off under Brexit, not as some punishment but to ensure EU survival. Given that No Deal will be so much worse for the UK than the EU, and as the clock is already ticking, the EU are in a position where they can pretty well dictate terms. To the extent that this is a game, we lost it the moment Article 50 was triggered.

The EU negotiations are still very important, but for the UK it is more a matter of making choices rather than extracting concessions. There are many kinds of Brexit. In thinking about who would be the best negotiator for the UK, the most important question to ask is who would make the right choices. Theresa May, by focusing so much on immigration and the European court, has already made two very bad decisions. She seems to be rather good at bad decisions. Personal qualities matter to a lesser extent, but success involves empathy and trust, not obstinacy. [1]

Unfortunately much of the country is still lost to the fiction that the negotiations are a battle of wills where the UK can emerge victorious if it is stubborn enough. While the ‘strong and stable’ line did not survive inspection, I suspect the ‘coalition of chaos’ mantra will begin to work in the last week of the campaign if the polls tighten. Hugo Dixon makes a strong case that in reality a hung parliament would actually be a good thing in many ways. However it is a case that is very difficult to get across in short soundbites, and the fact that there are a multitude of permutations will sound like chaos to many. In addition, the various possibilities are the stuff political commentators love talking about (see GE2015), so this apparent chaos will get plenty of airtime. That, despite her best efforts, should see May through to a decent majority on 8th June.

But this will not put an end to Leavers grief, but just delay and heighten it. Depression is likely to follow as the reality of the negotiations become clear. In all likelihood the economy and real wages will continue to stagnate, and the improvement in public services promised by the Brexiteers will not materialise. Theresa May once warned that the Conservatives had become known as the nasty party. Her actions now are ensuring that it forever becomes known as the party that embraced a disastrous Brexit.

[1] Her lies are also getting worse. At least ‘I’m calling the election because I need a strong mandate’ sounded plausible until you thought about it, but ‘I’m not joining a debate because I’m busy preparing for the negotiations’ wouldn’t fool a 10 year old.


  1. "Season 6 Episode 1, Frasier deals with the loss of his job as though it were a loved one, moving through the five traditional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, grief and acceptance, each with some weird results."

    Even in victory, the Leave campaigners remain as vulgar as ever.

  2. "As YouGov’s Brexit tracker shows, the UK remains as divided on the issue of Brexit as it was a year ago."

    I think it's important to realise that these numbers aren't static, but people are moving in both directions.

    For example, I expected, it turns out wrongly, that the Lib Dems pitch for Remainers would appeal to a significant proportion of Tory Remainers. But it seems that a large number of Tory Remainers actually believe that "it's better to get on with Brexit and make the best job out of it". That's quite a significant proportion shifting from Remain to Leave. So, presumably, there must also be a significant number moving in the opposite direction. It would be interesting to find out who they are.

    1. «I expected, it turns out wrongly, that the Lib Dems pitch for Remainers would appeal to a significant proportion of Tory Remainers»

      Grover Norquist explains well here that "conservative parties" are coalitions of groups with non-conflicting "button" issues:
      But on the vote-moving primary issue, everybody's got their foot in the center and they're not in conflict on anything. The guy who wants to spend all day counting his money, the guy who wants to spend all day fondling his weaponry, and the guy who wants to go to church all day may look at each other and say, "That's pretty weird, that's not what I would do with my spare time, but that does not threaten my ability to go to church, have my guns, have my money, have my properties, run by my business, home-school my kids."

      In T May's case she has rebranded her party as the English Nationalist Party because she wants to attract two groups:

      * Traditional tories mostly interested in bigger house prices and lower wages.
      * English nationalists mostly interested in "hard exit" and losing their sense of national humiliation.

      Her best is that even if most tories are not english nationalists to them tory economic policies are more important than the exit issue, and that even if many english nationalists don't like tory economic policies, for them "hard exit" is more important than their dislike for being toried. She has tried to make it easier for english nationalists who dislike tory economic policies to vote for her by pushing to the background the "Conservative Party" label, and talking as a "one nation" tory instead of a "neoliberal" tory.

  3. Perhaps you work from the assumption that most people want policies driven by what is best for the populace as a whole?
    Lynton Crosby seems to gain status of election guru by blaming immigrants (despite being a white australian, omg).
    So, perhaps economic models need to take the flaws of human nature into account, and explain why people will happily blow their toes off when confronted with shooting themselves in the foot?
    Is this Nash and gaming theory?

  4. What I see going on is the setting up of whose to blame when the obvious can't be contained any longer. 'Our negotiators weren't given a strong enough mandate. If the election goes very wrong we sent in the wrong negotiators. Our patriotic negotiators were undermined by the fifth column at home. We can all develop any amount more excusesbut the certainty will be that the BREXIT decision will retain its purity of concept.

    1. Very Clintonian. May cannot fail, she can only BE failed!

  5. "...because over the last year it has become clear to most Leavers that Brexit will involve a cut in their standard of living..."

    I wanted to ask you for evidence supporting this claim. Then I realized I probably find your evidence when I follow the link to YouGov's Brexit Trackers.

    But the evidence there contradicts your claim. Do you have any other evidence showing that "most Leavers" now think "Brexit will involve a cut in their living standard"?

    1. Look in the link under 'noted'.

    2. Why do You think Brexit will be painful for Europe too? After the French election the Europeans can say finally to Brexit, "wooooffff finally. God bless, we got rid of them."

  6. "...because over the last year it has become clear to most Leavers that Brexit will involve a cut in their standard of living..."

    It's not clear at all. Even when their standard of living falls, there will be ample plausible alternative explanations. It will be impossible to prove causality from Brexit to falls in living standards, because the paribus won't be ceteris. The leavers will remain delusional. After all, anyone who ever believed that Brexit would bring gazillions into the NHS is not capable of reasoned thought.


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