Surreal choices

When decisions look bizarre, it may be because they involve unfeasible trade-offs

Belgium is often associated with surrealism, not just thanks to renowned surrealist painter René Magritte was Belgian, but also because of its somewhat idiosyncratic politics. With six governments, several of which have a say in, for example, the ratification of EU free trade agreements, and of course its record of the longest period without an elected government (589 days), it has more than a decent claim to being a surrealist country.

But recently it has received a significant challenge from the UK. Earlier this week, rebels in the Tory party voted against the government, in order to support that very government. So what is going on? Let’s rewind a few weeks.

On Friday 6 July, prime minister Theresa May had pulled a white rabbit out of her hat. In a 12-hour long meeting at Chequers, her official country residence, she had succeeded in getting her unruly, divided cabinet unanimously to sign up to a comprehensive Brexit plan. Yet the triumph was short- lived. Less than three days later, both the Brexit minister, David Davis, and foreign secretary Boris Johnson had resigned, and she was forced to hurriedly reshuffle her government.

Opinions on the Chequers white paper in parliament were of course divided, and both sides had submitted amendments prior to the debate and vote. The pro-Europe side wanted to preserve what were, in their eyes, elements of the present relationship between the UK and the EU that are crucial for the country’s economic prosperity (like a form of customs union enabling frictionless automotive supply chains). Those favouring a hard Brexit wanted to eliminate all influence Europe might still have over the UK (such as the role of the European Court of Justice on VAT arrangements).

The vote on the Chequers plan was widely considered as a test for the government’s stability, and its ability to deliver the divorce by March of 2019. Under pressure, it had decided to accept all the amendments made by the Brexiteers, but none of the pro-Europe ones. Despite doom scenarios of what might happen if the government were defeated (a vote of no-confidence, followed by new elections which would be won by Labour and lead to PM Jeremy Corbyn!), fourteen Tory MPs voted against the government. They did this because they believe that the Chequers plan, with the amendments, didn’t stand a chance as a negotiation opener. Thanks to a handful of pro-Brexit Labour MPs who defied their own leadership’s voting instructions, and the remarkable absence of two key Liberal Democrat MPs, however, the government narrowly won (by 3 votes).

The scene of members of the governing majority deciding to vote against the government in order to safeguard the carefully crafted original government white paper has indeed something surreal about it. Can we make some sense of it?

For that, we must look at the choices some of the key people in this tragicomedy were (and are) facing.

Tough, tougher, toughest decision-making

Many decisions we make day in, day out are relatively simple. Shall we sacrifice one thing (often money or time) in order to gain another thing (typically a good or a service)? Whether we do or don’t, we’ll have less of one, but more of the other, and so the decision boils down to: is it worth it? That may not be easy, but it is not complex. Even if (or in fact precisely because) we can spend money or time in different ways, we can easily make comparisons, and so establish whether a particular exchange delivers the best value.

But sometimes intangible values play a part, and then things do become more complex. Deciding whether a new pair of trainers or a fancy meal out provides most value is one thing, but choosing between buying a new smartphone, and keeping it for another year while donating the money to a charity close to your heart, that is a different affair.

Yet the politicians on the choppy waters of the Brexit sea are facing even more complicated choices. They have to weigh up multiple intangibles against each other, like political ideology, the economy, and personal integrity. For many, the — for them at least — very tangible matter of the risk to their job as a minister or an MP adds a further dilemma.

Take the challenge for the cabinet members at the Chequers jamboree. Irrespective of which side they’re on, one element was loyalty to the PM (and keeping their ministerial job). But what about their ideology? Would the chance to get the Brexit they wanted (the softest possible for one side, the hardest one for the other) be enhanced by supporting the plan, or by rejecting it? Would their voters back home respond more positively if they stood up for their conviction, but undermined the PM — or vice versa? Which choice would best serve any personal ambitions (perhaps to become party leader and PM oneself)? Loyalty appeared to be the decisive factor at first, but upon reflection other considerations turned out to be more weighty for two key cabinet members.

Mrs May herself doesn’t have an easy job either. She has — perhaps unwisely — drawn, and later reconfirmed, several red lines well before the complexity of Brexit was fully clear. But as the daughter of a priest, she is a very conscientious person, for whom keeping promises is very important. However, Brexit bulges with trade-offs between sovereignty over laws, money and borders on the one hand, and frictionless trade (without tariffs or paperwork), and a myriad other complications for a range of industry sectors from air travel to nuclear medicine, on the other. More sovereignty may mean damage to trade, and hence to potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs.

On top of that, she is leading a deeply divided party that wouldn’t take much to split, and she has a very slim majority in the commons. One wrong step could lead not only to her losing her position as a party leader and PM, but also to an early election, in which a recent poll suggests Labour might gain many more seats than the Tories (though probably not an absolute majority). Her job, her reputation, the Conservative government and the survival of the Tory party are at stake.

The political trolley problem

Potentially, the choice she faces is very stark indeed. Should she preserve a smooth economic relationship with the EU (representing roughly half of the UK’s international trade) and compromise heavily on her red lines (and thus risk the implosion of her party)? Or should she follow the ideological path to sovereignty, which might just keep the party together (a majority of the grassroots membership is in favour of a hard Brexit), but risk significant economic damage to the country? Screw the party, or screw the country? It’s almost like a politician’s version of the trolley problem.

Within that context it is not entirely surprising to see Tory rebels voting with the opposition in order to support the government’s original proposals, surreal as that may look. But the actual roots of today’s surreal scenes lie not in the decisions that are being taken today, but in those that preceded it, including:

  • triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and thus unconditionally fix the day the UK will drop out of the EU without having a clear plan
  • pursuing (and promising) mutually incompatible goals, as if there are no trade-offs to be made (also known as having your cake and eating it)
  • holding a referendum without any plan of what happens in case it doesn’t go the way you want it to
  • holding a referendum in which one of the two options is ill-defined, open to widely different interpretations, and with no clarity on what trade-offs it would entail

As a Belgian (whose future status as an inhabitant of the UK is becoming more uncertain by the day) it pains me to say that the UK is well and truly outshining my native country in the surrealism stakes.

Ceci n’est pas un gouvernement.

Originally published at on July 20, 2018.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius