Tuesday 15 December 2020

Boris Johnson's Peculiar Game of Kamikaze Chicken is About to End

Rumple Johnson negotiates (credit: Andrew Parsons)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pursued exactly one strategy in his EU trade negotiations: threatening to drive Britain into a no-deal wall unless he gets what he wants. In other words, Johnson has been approaching this extraordinarily important matter of national interest as a peculiar version of the game of chicken. This explains much of his bizarre behaviour over the last 18 months, such as his antagonistic attitude, stubbornness, time-wasting, and even (part of) his buffoonery. Nevertheless, to be explained is not to be justified. Not only will the strategy fail, as it did before when Johnson used it in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations. It has also foreclosed any hope for a substantive trade deal that could have fulfilled the positive aspirations of Brexiteers.

In a traditional game of chicken, two teenagers drive their cars directly towards each other at high speed, threatening mutually comprehensive destruction. The one who swerves away first is the loser, but still better off than if they had crashed. It is a game that rewards the most reckless player, and so it is no wonder that a famously irresponsible politician like Johnson would select it. He is willing to make huge bets with Britain's national interest because he sees politics as a kind of game, and one that he gets to play with other people's money rather than his own. This can be seen in Johnson's original decision back in 2016 to join the Bexit side in the referendum. He calculated that supporting Brexit gave him his best chance of winning the Prime Ministership: although it would be unlikely to succeed, if it did all the sane contenders for party leadership would have been side-lined. Naturally the public interest was irrelevant to his considerations. Oddly enough, this same recklessness may also explain the charismatic self-confidence and rhetorical glibness that makes him so attractive to some voters: since he doesn't give a shit about his audience he isn't weighed down by concern about what they might think. 

Not unrelated to Johnson's disinterest in taking politics seriously, the other reason he relies so heavily on gambling (and charismatic glibness) as a method of government is that he is famously lazy and incompetent (in stark contrast to his Churchillian self-image). Thus, Johnson decided to play the trade negotiations as a game of chicken both because he knows that EU politicians and institutions do take the responsibility of politics seriously and will be unable to match his recklessness, and also because he knew that neither he nor the witless Brexit loyalists he has filled his government with would be capable of conducting a normal negotiation process with all its tedious details about chemical safety databases and mutual accreditation by regulatory bodies.

Johnson's chicken strategy explains why he and his government have been behaving in ways so starkly opposed to what one would expect of negotiators dealing with a huge number of very complex issues on a very tight deadline. In a game of chicken it is important to impress upon the other party that you are entirely willing to drive straight on even if you crash, and so convince them that their best possible strategy is to swerve away and accept the loss. In this metaphor, the EU is supposed to quaver at Johnson's resolute commitment to 'A good deal or no deal!' and calculate that - despite their enormously superior bargaining position - they should give him what he wants. Johnson has, for example, deliberately set out to destroy good will by treating Britain's EU trading partners as antagonists and railing against them in the domestic press. He has made clearly implausible demands (and even outright impossible ones such as around the treatment of Northern Ireland) in the name of 'sovereignty' and refused to budge on them. He has procrastinated away nearly all the meager time allowed for negotiations, including deliberately throwing away opportunities for deadline extensions. He has often sounded foolish and incoherent in his public pronouncements, as if he didn't really understand what was going on. And so on. All these bizarre behaviours can be understood as part of a cunning but fundamentally lazy plan to convince the EU that they are negotiating with someone crazy enough to actually believe that driving Britain into a no-deal crash would be an acceptable outcome.

And yet there is a huge flaw at the heart of Johnson's chicken strategy. It is true that the EU would be a net loser from returning to WTO trading rules with the world's fifth largest economy, and thus the mutually assured destruction of a no-deal outcome would be real for both parties. Yet the destruction would by no measure be equal. Post-Brexit, the EU is still the 2nd biggest economy in the world, more than 5 times larger than Britain. Although losing Britain would noticeably shrink the EU's single market, and hence the internal economies of scale that larger markets provide, the economic costs will be many times greater for Britain since its businesses will be trapped inside a market only 15% of its previous size, an economic backwater. This dramatic difference in fall-back position is the reason for Britain's weak bargaining position in negotiating the terms of future trade access and presumably the reason why Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, also attempted the chicken strategy after realising that conventional negotiations could never deliver what Brexiteers thought they had been promised. (Although her incompetence was convincing, her performance of jaunty recklessness was not: she was a tremendously serious politician, just really bad at it.)

The fact that the EU doesn't especially need anything from Britain after Brexit is exactly why this is not a real game of chicken. For the EU's politicians and institutions, many of Johnson's demands are far more (politically) costly than the loss of access to British markets under no-deal. They therefore see no reason to swerve away, no matter how convincing Johnson's performance of irresponsibility and incompetence. Thus, Johnson's chicken strategy ultimately amounts to a threat only towards Britain's welfare. 'Look here', Johnson is saying to the EU, 'On behalf of the League of Brexiteers I have taken Britain hostage. Unless you give us what we want I am going to drive it into this wall at high speed. And then you'll be sorry. There will be blood and refugees everywhere and you'll have to deal with the mess. Wiff-waff’!'

This is wonderfully reminiscent of that scene at the start of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy where Arthur Dent tries to play a similar game of kamikaze chicken against the contractors who have come to tear down his house. (Thanks, Ben Curthoys, for pointing it out) The analogy is particularly apt since Johnson has himself promised to “lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and…stop the construction” in the case of the planned extension to London's main airport.

“Mr. Dent,” he said.

“Hello? Yes?” said Arthur.

“Some factual information for you. Have you any idea how much damage that bulldozer would suffer if I just let it roll straight over you?”

“How much?” said Arthur.

“None at all,” said Mr. Prosser

There are surely limits to Johnson's recklessness. He is not the sort to ever throw himself under a bulldozer to prove a point, and, since he is not an elected monarch (like the clown president of America), he cannot throw the rest of us under it. Last year he pulled the exact same chicken stunt around the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement but chose to avert career disaster by swerving away at the last moment (while loudly declaring victory). Nevertheless, Johnson is substantially shielded from the normal political consequences of massive self-centered incompetence by the rise of Brexit identity politics, which judges success or failure by loyalty to the cause rather than by real world outcomes. Neither the economists' predictions about decreased future GDP nor the increasingly likely temporary chaos in food and medicine supply chains come January are likely to be enough to shake Johnson's voters from their partisan complacency. 

Nevertheless, the British people will pay a real price for their politicians' substitution of empty posturing  + gambling for real efforts to govern, and eventually this will have political consequences for the electability of the Conservative Party. Johnson has been emboldened to gamble not only with the British economy, but also with Northern Ireland's fragile peace and the fraying Union with Scotland. As more of his gambles go wrong his patriotic excuses will wear thin (as they already have over his deadly mismanagement of Covid, where Brexit loyalty counts for little). 

When that price is finally recognised Brexit voters should be among the most disappointed. For Johnson's extended performance of a peculiarly one-sided game of chicken has come at the cost of all that could have been achieved by engaging seriously in the negotiations. All that is left is a binary choice between an economically self-mutilating minimalist agreement barely above no deal at all, and a politically impossible maximalist agreement to roll-over nearly everything from EU membership. The neglected space in between was where a non-ideological approach to Brexit might have been constructed. That opportunity was squandered and with it the last hope for a Brexit that might in any way have been good for Britain. 

Note: A previous version of this essay appeared in 3 Quarks Daily

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher in The Netherlands. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.