Manifestos are a cornerstone of democracy. Prospective governments lay out their plans; they are scrutinized by the press; the party with the most popular set of plans gets the chance to carry it out; its attempts are, in turn, scrutinized by the press. Once the next election comes around, voters can see any differences between what they were promised and what was delivered.
Leave had no detailed manifesto, just a series of vague pledges made by independent campaign groups. This was, in part, intentional. In a blog post from June 2015, Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave strategist who is now Johnson’s top adviser, wrote: “Creating an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around seems an almost insuperable task. Eurosceptic groups have been divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions ... There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue.” (Incidentally, one of the few concrete pledges made by Vote Leave, the officially sanctioned group campaigning for Brexit, was that Britain would exit the EU with “a new UK-EU Treaty based on free trade and friendly cooperation.” In other words, a deal.)
As a political adviser, Cummings combines strategic nous with the unfortunate instincts of a Bond villain revealing his master plan. The absence of “an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around” might have helped Leave win the referendum, but it has made Britain almost ungovernable since. No one can agree on what Brexit means, and rejecting whatever is on offer is in the interests of many different groups.
May, Johnson’s immediate predecessor, must take some responsibility for the drift toward no deal being treated as a reasonable option. She repeatedly aired a sound bite—“No deal is better than a bad deal”—that she patently did not believe, since her government never seriously contemplated leaving without one. But her words removed the government’s ability to explain the problems with no deal. Into that vacuum jumped the Brexit Party and several dozen of May’s own Conservative colleagues. Hence the normalization of no deal.
This rejection of compromise has been driven by a small faction of the ruling Conservative Party. Those who voted against May’s deal each of the three times she proposed it call themselves the “Spartans.” Their quest for a “pure” Brexit saw May, who voted Remain, replaced as prime minister by Johnson, a Brexiteer. Many of the new leader’s key staff held senior positions on the Vote Leave campaign.
Let’s take a moment to reflect. In more normal times, no government would voluntarily flirt with a policy that its own analysis suggests might deprive citizens of food, medicine, or other supplies. World War II–inflected rhetoric around no deal—“war cabinet” and “Dunkirk spirit”—conceals the fact that a developed nation, in peacetime, is seriously contemplating the idea of cutting off important trading alliances and security partnerships overnight, no matter how severe the consequences. As the comedian David Schneider remarked: “The UK has a ‘war committee’ because it’s about to declare war on itself.”