Recently I read Brian Farrell’s The Defence and Fall of Singapore (aka the greatest defeat in British military history) and found his distinction between a gamble and calculated risk highly relevant for the policy choices of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. For Farrell a calculated risk is a “decision that takes into account the possibility things might go badly wrong, but leaves open a chance to survive if they do”, while a gamble is a taking a decision with no thought towards contingency plans; you roll the dice and hope for the best.
A lot of the chatter this week has been about whether the Prime Minister is willing to provoke a constitutional crisis to ensure the UK leaves the European Union on 31 October. The scenario is that Johnson loses a confidence vote in September, but allows a default Brexit to happen by either refusing to resign and clinging to power or by calling an election but setting the date after Halloween. Under the ‘caretaker convention’ no major policy should be enacted during this period of ‘purdah’, but as leaving the EU is the default one could argue this is not unconstitutional.
What is happening here? There have been numerous profiles of Cummings depicting him as a master of the dark arts and strategic genius, so is this just a high-risk strategy to intimidate the EU into changing its position on things like the ‘undemocratic’ backstop? I don’t think so.
If Johnson and Cummings were making a calculated risk, there would be serious thought about the contingencies of a No Deal Brexit. Johnson has spent much of his premiership and the campaign leading up to it calling for optimism and belief in British pluck, but optimism does not keep supply chains running. The government’s plans for No Deal are not heartening. Michael Gove has been placed in charge of preparing the country but details are scarce. The Chancellor has committed £2.1 billion for No Deal preparations. This is not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things. It is more bluff than plan.
Indeed, Johnson and Cummings are doubling down. The economic risks of Brexit have been maximised by pursuing No Deal, but these stakes have proven too low for Johnson and Cummings and now they are putting a full-blown constitutional crisis on the table. Their plan is to raise the stakes so high that the other side blinks. That Tory rebels will blink, that Labour will blink, that Remainers will blink, that the EU will blink, but what if they don’t? If the UK crashes out of the EU on Halloween in the midst of a constitutional crisis (and/or a general election) and a likely run on the pound, these plans will be about as effective as the defence of Singapore in the Second World War.
This is a government of gamblers. Come November the country may resemble a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous, as we all come to terms with consequences of men who love playing for the highest stakes while giving no consideration to the consequences of losing.