Alan Wager / Jun 2020
If it all goes wrong, who will get the blame? This is the sort of calculation that, for some, gives politics a bad name – speaking to the common perception that those in charge are venal, that they prioritise shifting accountability over taking responsibility and, above all else, are in it for themselves.
Yet political scientists who have thought hard about this come to what may be a surprising (and different) conclusion: working out where blame will be allocated, and how much of it will be there to spread around, does not inherently lead to bad policy outcomes. In fact, it is why democracies in general get better outcomes when it comes to coping with problems like Covid-19: self-preservation means that, internally within government, better decisions are made.
Where this breaks down is in situations where there is unlikely to be either any internal or external accountability. That is to say, in three different scenarios: when there is either no real competition within government about where the finger will be pointed; when there is a perception in government there will be no blame from voters when things do hit the fan; and when both are true at once.
Which brings us to Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party and a no deal Brexit.
As our recent report at The UK in a Changing Europe demonstrated, it is now a live possibility that no trade deal will be agreed between the UK and the EU by the end of the year. It is a near certainty if this does happen there will be significant economic damage. Michel Barnier clearly sees this as a possibility, and has privately implored EU states to move from ‘maximalist’ positions on areas like fishing, to make a deal possible.
In turn, these states will have to make a decision about blame allocation: will they get more flack within the EU if they bring down talks, or domestically if they are seen to sell out a key constituency.
Within the UK these calculations about blame and a no deal Brexit are, in a sense, less complicated. This is a Boris Johnson government made in his image, with a cabinet that is – by popular perception – underpowered across nearly all its key cabinet positions. On Brexit, Johnson has a special advisor heading up the talks in David Frost. If it all goes wrong – if no deal is not only economically deleterious for the UK but politically damaging for the Conservatives – that will be Boris Johnson’s problem.
The most famous quote on trust in politics is from LBJ’s Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who once noted that ‘to err is human, to blame someone else is politics’. Boris Johnson is doing something different: staking a lot on the idea that there will not be much blame to go around within the UK, and within the Conservative Party. There are some grounds to think he might be right: YouGov have found that Leave voters and Tory voters are increasingly against an extension of the transition, but also would not personally blame Johnson if it does happen.
Yet there is also a broader calculation in government about how blame can be avoided. The connection between economic damage and political risk is taken as a given in much of the literature on blame. Someone, somewhere pays a political cost for an economic hit. Yet if measured in quarterly growth figures, the unprecedented levels of flux in GDP expected at the end of this year will make any short-term effect difficult to calculate.
Ironically, this could see Leave campaigners potentially making the same mistake as Remainers did back in 2016. Economic effects feed into broader political narratives. In 2016, people felt George Osborne’s threats about the economy were not credible because he was widely distrusted and unpopular. By the end of 2020, it is possible that the opposite effect happens, and the economic threats from Brexit are seen as real for precisely the same reason: because Boris Johnson has lost a lot of popularity, and is increasingly distrusted.