Politics @ Surrey

The blog of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey

Why do the right guys win? A look at the surprisingly conservative outcomes of recent elections

This is a guest post, from James Harman, from the University’s Department of Sociology:

In May 2015, the United Kingdom voted to give the Conservatives an overall majority in the House of Commons. In June 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union in a landmark and highly controversial referendum. Just days later, Spain voted to increase the seat share of the conservative People’s Party at the expense of the much-vaunted Unidos Podemos alliance. And just last November, the United States of America elected Donald Trump as its 45th President.

All of these events returned arguably right-wing results, and all proved surprising and even deeply shocking to politicians, markets and the mass media. But why have recent Western vote outcomes been so surprisingly conservative?

For a popular vote to be a surprise, two things are needed. Voters must arrive at a certain outcome, and this outcome must conflict with what at least some people expected it to be. In the contemporary West, the most important source of electoral expectations comes from the polls produced by political research agencies. In all of the above votes, pollsters systematically underestimated the popularity of right-wing outcomes. Hence the surprise.

Much of the flack for this discrepancy has been directed against polling organisations. There are good reasons for this: polls are generally based upon quick and dirty data, frequently relying on unrepresentative convenience samples to conserve time and money. It should not be surprising that the outcomes of these polls are occasionally something less than reliable.

But there may be something else going on here. Two popular theories suggest that even where the public is correctly polled, “shy Tories” systematically downplay their willingness to vote for the Conservatives (perhaps feeling that support for this party is socially stigmatised) and “lazy Labour” supporters exaggerate their willingness to vote at all.

Prof Patrick Sturgis’ inquiry into the 2015 general election polling “miss” dismissed these theories, finding that if anything survey dishonesty has made recent election polls slightly more accurate. Furthermore, the unexpected Conservative vote boost was greatest where the Conservatives are most popular, suggesting that it cannot be explained by a “shaming” effect. Last year this was repeated in the United States, where the difference between actual and predicted Trump votes was greatest in Republican-majority districts.

These findings are interesting, but how widely applicable are they? Do they apply, for example, to last year’s EU referendum?

What do we know about “Leavers” and “Remainers”? Well, areas with larger numbers of “Leave” votes tended to be older, more economically disadvantaged, and, perhaps surprisingly, more likely to have dependent children– even disregarding age differences. Whilst economic disadvantage tends to be associated with not voting, increasing age is often linked with voter turnout and there is also some evidence that having children increases one’s likelihood of voting. It also appears that Leavers, when asked in surveys, were more disposed to put their trust in the decisions of ordinary people, as opposed to those of experts. So perhaps Leavers were more motivated to vote than Remainers.

To investigate this further, I downloaded and analysed Wave 7 of the British Election Study’s Internet Panel. This survey was conducted online in April and May 2016, shortly before the vote but early enough in advance to allow respondents to take considered stances.

At the time these data were collected, the survey respondents seemed to lean overall in the direction of voting “Remain”, with 50.4% intending to vote to Remain and 47.6% intending to vote to leave. This is similar to the findings of many convenience-sampled polls taken at the time, suggesting that the “Brexit surprise” did not stem from sampling issues.

But when we compare likelihood to vote in the EU referendum across the two camps, it becomes apparent that Leavers reported a slightly higher average likelihood to vote than Remainers. The difference is small, but then so was Leave’s margin of victory.

Figure 1. Average likelihood to vote in EU referendum by vote intention. The flipped H-shapes represent the range of values within which we can be 95% confident the “true” population values lie. As the error bars do not overlap, we can be 95% sure that Leavers reported greater average likelihood of voting than Remainers.

The effect is not limited to these two specific questions. Leavers also tended to be both more interested in the EU referendum than Remainers, and more heavily exposed to political media content. This could be taken to imply the existence of a “Lazy Remainer” syndrome.

Studies of “Shy Tory” syndrome have hitherto relied on rather indirect measures of social pressure, such as party vote shares in a local area. A more direct way of tapping into individual-level cognition is through the British Election Study’s handy social desirability scale. Because survey respondents often favour reporting convention over controversy, the designers of the BES built in four “trick questions” which detect respondent dishonesty:

  1. I always smile at people every time I meet them
  2. I always practice what I preach
  3. If I say to people that I will do something, I always keep my promise no matter what
  4. I would never lie to people

In most cases, respondents who agree with any of these statements are probably trying a bit too hard to look good.

As Figure 2 shows, Leavers tended to trigger social desirability alarm bells more often than Remainers. They thus appear to be at a greater risk of hiding their preferences when responding to polls. Even if “Shy Tory” syndrome does not exist, “Shy Leaver” syndrome seems to.



Figure 2. Number of social desirability items chosen by individual respondents intending to vote Leave and Remain in June’s referendum. Error bars to represent confidence are not possible on this kind of graph, but another procedure called a chi-squared test showed that these differences are over 95% likely to be genuine.



Figure 3. Expectations of respondents’ associates’ EU referendum votes by respondent EU referendum vote intention. As with Figure 4, a chi-squared test certified that these differences are highly likely to be genuine.

This last graph provides one final clue to the “surprise” of the referendum outcome: people tended to expect their acquaintances to vote in the same way as themselves. We know that people tend to associate with others like themselves, and thus could often miss out on evidence which contradicts their preconceptions. So perhaps the vote to leave the European Union was only surprising to some.

Why did the “right” side win in the EU referendum, when the polls indicated otherwise? Partly because the polls were off, but partly because ordinary, flawed, often misleading human beings were responsible for answering them. For as long as those on the right feel embarrassed about their beliefs, and those on the left fail to act upon theirs, electoral outcomes will continue to surprise us.


James Harman is a political psychologist and a postgraduate research methods student at the University of Surrey. His work has previously been published by the Electoral Reform Society, White Rose University Press and the Q-Step Network. He tweets @JamesChrHarman.

A record of the SPSS syntax and output from the analysis is available from the author on request.

This post originally appeared on the PSA Blog.

Image: Airpix CC BY-NC-ND

The supply and demand of UKIP (AMENDED)


Can you see Nigel’s shadow?

The thing that is most surprising about the Groundhog Day elements of UKIP is that it is at all surprising: it’s not as if we’ve not been here before, talking about the same people and the same issues.

The current bout of metaphorical – and not yet literal – fisticuffs has been driven by the continued enmity of Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell. The former has never cared at all for the latter, except for the huge boost his defection in 2014 gave the campaign for the 2015 general election. Likewise, Carswell was never a good fit with the party, a view underlined by the revelation of the ‘Tate plot‘, Daniel Hannan’s masterplan to detoxify UKIP ahead of the EU referendum.

Politically, Carswell is a libertarian misfit in the party’s ragtag populist jumble. Personally, one doubts that any kind words have been exchanged between him and Farage.

In addition, the proximate cause of the barney – Farage not getting a peerage or a knighthood – is another very long-running saga. It’s well over a decade now that assorted tales of the burning desire of Farage to be accepted into the upper House have come to me in various forms. Sometimes it was framed as his price for standing down the party, sometimes as reward for his service to the nation; but the one constant was that ‘Nigel wants to be ennobled’. And I’ll work on the basis that if I was hearing this then it has been an open secret in all relevant circles.

So why the fuss?

Partly, this is about the poor showing in last week’s by-elections, especially Stoke Central. Paul Nuttall, the new leader (partly by default), needed to make a good fist of these votes, primarily to demonstrate his (and his party’s) continued relevance, but also to vindicate his change of emphasis to usurping Labour in their Northern heartlands. The failure to produce a Richmond-style upset (which has given the Lib Dems a burst of new life) inevitably put backs up in a party that is still working through its Farage-departure-grief issues.

That Farage himself has taken lessons in back-seat driving from his hero, Margaret Thatcher, doesn’t help, especially with his backer Arron Banks very unburdened in making the kind of bold statements that journalists love to quote.

If this comes across as blah, blah, then it’s because this has been very much the default mode of the party. Internal bickering, personality clashes and fights, an unstable and contingent record of success: this is as true now as it was in 1993 (when it was founded) or 2004 (year of the great Kilroy-Silk farce). Plus ça change, etc.

As such, the usual flurry of “is this the end of UKIP?” pieces misses the point: the party has form in this and all the available evidence suggests that it will find a solution (even if it is one that creates its own problems).

The easiest way to understand this is the mismatch of supply and demand for UKIP.

On the supply side, we have a mess. There’s a party, but one with personnel, organisational, financial and reputational issues. UKIP is no closer to a core ideology than it was at its formation, instead throwing together policies on an ad hoc basis (with the notable exception of the 2015 general election manifesto (see end of text)): the marked strengthening of marketing and strategy in the past 5 years only partly covers this.

But the party survives, because there is demand for it. The rhetorical approach of Farage – and Nuttall, to a lesser extent – is built on the sense of disconnect and dissatisfaction that many voters feel: we don’t need smarty-pants politicians, we just need to use a bit of common sense. Seen differently, one should focus not on the failure to win any more than one seat in the general election, but on the 4 million votes the party got. That’s a lot of people willing to put their money where their mouth is and isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.

Two thoughts arise from this.

The first is that even if UKIP does suffer further ructions, it is likely to survive. Even the mooted Farage/Banks populist movement would find itself struggling to differentiate itself in the longer term from a UKIP that has grown beyond its narrow anti-EU origins.

The second is that Brexit is not the be-all and end-all of British politics. It changes a lot of things, but it doesn’t change everything. Among the many dangers that the coming years contain, the high probability that other social forces will be allowed either to drift or to be captured by special interests is one that must give much cause for concern. With a political class and a media that necessarily must give most of its efforts to managing and observing a huge change in public policy, there is a lot of opportunity for others to advance their agendas. As Boris Johnson would doubtless put it, Brexit is like D-Day: crucially important, but not the whole war.


AMENDED 1000: As Suzanne Evans rightly points out, the 2015 manifesto was developed and costed (unlike other parties’), so I’ve changed the text above. However, I’d note that even this document does not contain a core, underlying ideological position, but rather a series of uneasy interactions between liberalism, conservativism, populism and more.

What about the abyss?

freakish_formations-_an_abyss_yawning_in_the_bottom_of_an_extinct_crater-_-_nara_-_298385I’ve been looking back at my posts from last summer, when things Brexit-y were in much more obvious flux. this was triggered by last week’s post on the looming Article 50 notification, which reminded me that I’d sketched out some options.

Briefly re-stated, these suggested that the UK would aim for either close or distant relations with the EU in the initial post-membership phase and then in the longer-term relationship: thus, you could have a ‘Norway’ (close, then close), ‘reverse accession’ (close, then distant), ‘abyss’ (distant, then close) and ‘hard’ (distant, then distant) path.

Clearly, debate has moved on since then, but the ‘abyss‘ option is worth revisiting, for reasons that will be fairly obvious.

The basic conceit is that the government would push hard for a distant relationship, only then to row back hard, having seen how perilous that route is in practice. The benign version would be a genuine change of heart – ‘we must think of the national interest’-type rhetoric – while the more cynical might consider it possible that the government always had this in mind, but it was the only way to build public support for what looks like a reversal of policy.

As regular readers will know, I incline in general to cynicism, but the past 8 months as surely the clearest ever example of cock-up over conspiracy. If there is someone in Whitehall or Westminster with a masterplan for all this, then it is the equal of any paperback thriller, and about as likely.

This, sadly, should be no comfort to any of us: there has been a palpable sense of ‘making it up as we go along’ in the corridors of power, strengthened by the repeated failures to demonstrate even the minimal level of intent needed to conduct negotiations with the EU27.

So if the abyss option is to be used, it will be because it looks like the best course of action at the time. This raises two basic questions: why would that happen, and what would be the effect?

Inasmuch as the government does know what it wants from Brexit, the direction is currently set for something between ‘reverse accession’ and ‘hard’ Brexit: no to free movement, but trying to keep as much as possible of the rest. Rhetorically, Theresa May has placed herself firmly in this position, accepting no advice and encouraging no debate beyond her very immediate circle. The unwavering opposition to any amendment of her ‘plan’ is a strong part of this: firm, if futile, resistance to the Millar case; parliamentary manoeuvring to avoid amendments to the EU(NOW) Bill.

The upshot is that May has made it very hard indeed to move away from her position, vague though it might be. As a result, it would need something of very great weight to move her.

Logically, that great weight would be an economic collapse, something at least in the order of 2007-8 and possibly even more. This means a need for dramatic visuals of shuttered factories, sharply rising inflation and unemployment, stark collapses in the exchange rate: moreover, it needs to be clearly linked to Brexit.

Ironically, the dithering caused by David Cameron’s abrupt departure in June makes this all much less likely. The hiatus has not only given economic agents time to start lying plans and make adjustments, it has also changed public opinion. The failure of the Leave vote to result in the economic calamities forecast by Remain campaigners has given many voters the impression that Brexit won’t (maybe even can’t) be so bad, economically speaking. Yes, the UK hasn’t actually changed anything about its status in the EU, but that is to miss the point: many people don’t see it that way. Put differently, ‘Project fear’ only works if people buy the fear: otherwise, it’s all a bit Wizard of Oz.

As a result, even if economic disaster did loom, it might not actually have the effect outlined above. Instead, it might simply encourage a ‘more of the same’ attitude: it’s only hurting because we haven’t yet followed through. Politically, the advantage of taking that view is that it’s unknowable, and that if things do go belly-up, then one can always argue that it was because we didn’t make the right choices earlier on. Unsatisfactory perhaps, but probably more attractive an option than having to eat humble pie as you scramble to rebuild links with the EU.

And this is the second element: the EU would probably be willing to accept a contrite UK, returning to the table to ask for more. Quite aside from the political and personal satisfactions of seeing the EU model be vindicated by the UK’s return, such a development would be a positive one for EU exporters and EU security (both narrowly and broadly). Practically, if this all happened relatively quickly, then the legislative gap would be minimal and things could be put together at some speed.

But to put all of this down on paper/screen simply highlights how much more unlikely the abyss option has become. If it ever had a chance, then that chance looks to have been spent somewhere between May’s election as party leader and the non-amendment of the EU(NOW) Bill in the Commons.

This matters, because it points once again to the central importance of the opening of Article 50 negotiations and the initial ask that will come with that. This will be the central determinant of the path of Brexit, which is why May has held on to control of it so very firmly. The big question now is whether she knows what to do with the power she now holds.

Pakistan and Very Real Terror

While the western world reeled from the shock announcement of a non-existent terrorist attack in Sweden last week, other countries counted their very real dead. Pakistan in particular has been rocked by a series of attacks that have put the state onto a war footing, and led to an increase in tension with neighbouring Afghanistan.

The wave of attacks started last Monday, when a group of pharmacists protesting a change to drug laws in Punjab were attacked by a suicide bomber from a faction of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP).  A strange target for a precision terrorist attack to be sure. Perhaps it could be written off as an anomaly, a flash of indiscriminate horror in a country that has known all too much of it. Then on Wednesday two suicide bombers detonated their vests as they attempted to make entry into the Mohmand tribal headquarters in Ghalanai in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Two police officers and three by-standers were killed and again, a faction of the Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility. On the same day, another suicide bomber on a bike targeted a van carrying four judges (three of them female) in nearby Hayatabad. The judges survived but a police officer was killed. The TTP took direct responsibility.

These attacks may not have been held up for particularly intense scrutiny if it wasn’t for the subsequent attack on Thursday. Another suicide attack, this time on the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the town of Sehwan in Sindh, killed 88 people and wounded many more. It was a holy day, and the shrine was packed. Medical responders struggled to cope with the volume of casualties.

Despite the well-established narrative that Pakistan has become more secure as a result of large scale military campaigns waged in the North West of the country against the TTP, it and other anti-state militant organisations have maintained the ability to inflict horrific damage on the population. These attacks comes less than a year since another massive suicide attack on a park in Lahore that killed over 70 people. A little over a year before that, the infamous Peshawar school massacre that claimed lives of 132 children. Despite the apparent nihilism of such violence, the TTP were quite clear in their justification:

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan had taken this extreme step to take to target the army school to revenge. We will target every institution linked to the army unless they stop operations and the extra-judicial killing of our detainees… Now, families of the security forces should also feel the pain like our people. Our detainees are being killed and their bodies are thrown on roads

The response in Pakistan’s media to this latest atrocity has, understandably, been one of rage. An editorial in Dawn, the country’s largest English newspaper, claimed ‘the gates of hell’ have been opened. But the focus of this anger has not been the TTP directly, under the apparent logic of ‘what can you expect from a pig but to grunt?’ Rather, ire has been directed to the security forces, and their apparent failure to protect the public.

But Pakistan’s military hierarchy is rarely on the losing end of a public relations battle. The blame has been shifted squarely onto the government of neighbouring Afghanistan, where Pakistan has for years claimed that TPP have been able to secure refuge from the military’s devastating counter insurgency operations just across the border. Ashraf Ghani has denied the charge, and maintained Afghanistan’s commitment to help root out all militants.

But if that pledge rings hollow, it would be difficult to blame the Afghan premier. Not only did the ISI ‘godfather’ the Afghan Taliban, who (along with the Afghan state) are contributing to record high civilian casualties in their own country, has provided defacto support for the group throughout the ‘war on terror’ despite all manner of threats and bribes from the US to alter course.

In a 2015 interview with Medhi Hasan, former ISI chief Asad Durrani was extraordinarily candid about Pakistan’s strategic support for militant groups deemed to have strategic utility. The ISI has always backed the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to balance against India. Ashraf Ghani on the other hand, recently went to New Delhi to ask Narendra Modi for military aid to balance against Pakistan.

As it stands, Pakistan has responded to the attack by killing over one hundred ‘militants’. But it has also demanded that Afghanistan take action against a list of Taliban operatives. More ominously it has closed border crossings and begun shelling what it claims are TTP camps situated across the Afghan border, and while the Afghan government is pushing for a diplomatic solution it also maintains ‘the right to retaliate.’

The situation is complex and dangerous. And if these are adjectives that we might not wish to associate with problems faced by the current US administration, it won’t stop geopolitics intruding on President Trump’s ‘honeymoon’ period. The US is neck deep in Pakistan, providing over $33 Billion in overt military aid over the last 16 years, despite the myriad concerns about the ISI’s relationship to militancy. For several years it has used this aid as an enticement for Pakistan to engage in precisely the type of major counter-insurgency operations that have in turn generated violent responses from the Pakistan Taliban. One of the final announcements of outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry was that the US had constructed a state of the art tactical security operations centre in Pakistan. It has invested heavily in this long time regional security partner, as it has in the security capacity of the Afghan state. If tensions continue to rise, the Trump administration will be seen as the natural go-between.

Sweden this is not.

Tick follows tock follows tick: Waiting for May in March

We find ourselves at the end of the phoney war. Probably.

With only a few weeks left until Theresa May’s self-imposed deadline for Article 50 notification, the most striking thing as one looks around is the almost-complete absence of interest in the issue.

In the UK, this might partly be understood by the wait on the House of Lords to complete their approval of the legislation. However, despite the government’s expectation that this will result in amendments and thus ‘ping pong’ with the House of Commons, which in turn might mean missing the end-March deadline, there is scarcely a whisper of discontent.

In the EU27, there is little more than continuing preparation for the coming negotiations, as the reports pile up (most recently from the French Senate) and the checklists grow.

Indeed, the most notable intervention of recent weeks has come from Tomas Prouza, Czech State Secretary for European Affairs. He spoke at an event I attended last week in Prague, with a speech that was mainly noted in the UK as accusing May of lying about the impact of EU immigrants on the UK. Sitting in the audience, that wasn’t my take-home.

Instead, Prouza seemed more interested in underlining the point that May has still to set out anything like a comprehensive negotiating position for Article 50: in his words, the White Paper did nothing except state that “Theresa May’s speech means Theresa May’s speech” and a broad hope that everyone could get along well in future.

In short, Prouza was making the basic observation that the Czech government – and the EU27 – have paid (and do pay) attention to what is happening in the UK and are factoring it into their calculations: there is no hermetic sealing off of British political debate from the outside world. That such a thing has to be said betrays both the state of the UK’s discussion on Article 50 and the self-image of the country.

The biggest unknown in the process right now is how much May has adequately laid the groundwork for starting negotiations. That includes knowing what the EU7 are likely to ask for and who she can work on to help her achieve her objectives. As the Prague conference noted several times, the UK has traditionally been very good at divide-and-rule in the EU, with a series of partnerships on different issues with other member states. At the same time, Prouza did note that in all the like-minded groups, much work has done into sorting out who will pick up the UK’s role, so much disinvestment in relations with the British has already taken place. And in a context of departure on uncertain terms, what can the UK offer that will be of interest to others?

More crucially, the British government has still to articulate what it wants. Even the concession that it will not seek to break the four freedoms seems to have sunk without much trace, largely because the EU27 have been so adamant that this was never going to be an option: the UK is simply falling into line, not giving anything up. Beyond that, the government is still parroting the line about finding innovative solutions to membership of the customs union, without any idea of how that might work.

All of this does not bode well.

The end-March deadline still looks questionable, both on the British side and for the EU27, who are still deep in a pile of other problems that require their attention. Even if May has decided that notification in or around the EU’s 60th anniversary celebrations, or even participation at that event in Rome, is a bad way to kick things off, March remains a terrible time, between the resumption of the annual refugee traffic across the Mediterranean, an uneasy Russia and a US administration that looks ever-less in control, not to mention the persistent need for Eurozone reform, and a big bunch of important national elections.

The mistake not to be made, however, is to assume that this helps the UK get a better deal. Further delay on an already-much-delayed notification will win no friends and gain no advantage. Likewise, the UK needs to recognise that the time that has already gone has been used by the EU27 to settle many points of difference among them, leaving the latter better-placed to shape both the process and the content of negotiations.

As such, the view from Prague is the same as it is from other capitals: don’t think you can mess us about. as Prouza commented, the Czechs have many links with the UK, but they also have them with other EU states and right now, ‘club membership has more benefits.’

A bridge to nowhere?


Spot the bridge

About a decade ago in the US, there was a minor scandal about a ‘bridge to nowhere’: substantial federal funds had been appropriated to build a bridge to replace a little-used ferry to an Alaskan island, mainly – it appeared – to serve the pork-barrel politics of Washington.

Theresa May might find herself reflecting on this tale as she returns from the informal meeting of EU heads in Malta on Friday. Alongside the ostensible purpose of the summit – to discuss migration policy and plan for the future of the EU – this was a last opportunity for May to demonstrate her bone fides to colleagues ahead of Article 50 notification next month.

May arrived in Valletta as the only one of the participants to have met Donald Trump since his inauguration, a meeting secured at great speed to bolster her tentative plans for the UK to use Brexit as a springboard to get out into the international system. Taking Trump’s vague enthusiasm for pursuing free trade negotiations as a mandate for this course of action, May’s message to the European Council was two-fold.

Firstly, the UK wishes the EU well in its future development, both because a healthy EU is – politically and economically-speaking – good for the UK, and because May recognises that now is not the time to raise backs, on the verge of a set of negotiations where the UK will be asking much of the EU.

Secondly, May offered the UK a link to the US, an intermediator with a Trump administration that has, by turns, bemused and shocked many in Europe. Playing on both the historic ties that the UK has with the US and the potential close relationship that May talks of for Article 50, May was arguing that the UK still matters.

As far as this went, it represents as coordinated and developed a plan as May has presented to date.

The problem, as so often, is that the UK appears to have made its plans without much reference to what the EU is discussing.

At one level this is very understandable, because the two are heading in different directions: the UK government has to think about what is good for the country’s future path, while the EU has a very different set of concerns. Valletta is a case in point, with the need to regulate migrant flows across the Mediterranean a matter of pressing concern for the EU27 in a way that it certainly isn’t for the UK.

However, at every other level, it represents a failure of British government policy, one that has long characterised the UK’s membership of the EU. The unwillingness – or inability – of successive generations of British politicians and civil servants to conceptualise European integration as anything other than a matter of economic cooperation has led to repeated category errors in policy.

Valletta highlighted this mismatch in a number of ways.

Firstly, the EU’s self-image is that of a substantial and significant part of the international system, with enough depth and scope to be able to fend for itself. May’s offer of a bridge across the Atlantic looked both condescending and irrelevant: the mood music in many European capitals is that Trump will be handled with the longest of spoons or simply ignored as much as possible until a successor arrives in the White House. As Dalia Grybauskaitė, archly noted, “I don’t think there is a necessity for a bridge. We communicate with the Americans on Twitter.”

Secondly, Brexit still looks like an irritant to the EU27. For all of May’s fine words in Valletta, the general impression of the UK is that there is still no clear plan or process for Article 50. Recall that the meeting came after the confusions and vaguenesses of May’s Lancaster House speech, Parliament’s first steps to passing an Article 50 Bill and a White Paper that struggled to offer any substantive policy positions.

For several months after the referendum, Brexit looking like it might be one of the more manageable problems on the EU’s agenda: self-contained, removing a less-than-fulsome partner from the mix, and heading away from the EU rather than heading towards it. More recently, that confidence has been turning into uncertainty about timing and concern that the UK lacks the set of objectives it will need to guide itself through the negotiations. Sympathy looks in very short supply in EU27 capitals, even with a Maltese Presidency than might be expected to be a natural ally.

Once again, May is like the guest who turns up at a party, bearing some inappropriate gift. Worse still, she appears to have little interest in maximising her opportunities: having set up a bilateral with Angela Merkel for Friday afternoon, it was cancelled at short notice, as May felt she had covered the necessary points in an informal chat during a walkabout earlier in the day. Maybe this was discretion – not taking up time with empty rhetoric – but it also speaks to the lack of a detailed plan that May can share with those she will need to convince in the coming months.

And that Alaskan bridge? It never got built in the end. In a time of profound political uncertainty, both domestically and internationally, the UK is going to have to find a better gambit if it is to demonstrate its value to an EU that teeters on the edge of turning in on itself.


This post was originally written for www.ukandeu.ac.uk 

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