Boris Johnson As PM Has The Best Chance Of Delivering A Great Brexit

‘Chicken’ is a formal game theory model of conflict between two participants. It’s often illustrated as a contest between two vehicles driving down a road on a collision course. The winner is whoever does not swerve, the loser is the one who swerves, but the worst outcome is a crash (no one swerves). Chicken provides a framework for thinking about Brexit. Imagine the EU and the UK as two buses heading towards a collision, aka a hard Brexit. The question is, who will compromise by swerving away from this disaster (or in game theory terms, who will be chicken)?

Modeling Brexit as a game of chicken makes clear why Theresa May is absolutely the wrong person to serve as Prime Minister at this critical moment. May is intelligent, rational, and in many ways, a career public servant. No one seriously believes she would crash the bus and risk damage to millions of people. The EU likely feels comfortable she’ll find some means to swerve and avoid a crash — by compromising.

To get the best deal from the EU, the UK needs a Prime Minister the EU credibly believes would crash the bus. It has to be someone who people think is a sociopath, an incompetent, and a buffoon — in short, someone the EU would believe is clueless enough to crash the bus. In my opinion, only one person has these credentials: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson… Boris Johnson. Only when the EU faces a UK, guided by Johnson, can one imagine the EU turning chicken.

If you feel I’m over-stating Johnson’s qualifications for this role, recall that in 2018 Johnson won The Economist’s award for the politician who had done the most to let down his party and his country. It described Johnson as having “failed miserably as foreign secretary. A demagogue not a statesman, the most irresponsible politician the country has seen for many years.”

Characterising the EU and UK as buses heading towards each other is overly simplistic, since it implies this would be a collision between equals. In reality, this collision won’t be between equals — the EU is much better positioned.

The population of the UK is about 66million, while the population of the EU (minus the UK) is about 440million. So in population alone, the EU is over 6 times the size of the UK. The GDP of the UK is about $2.8trillion, while the GDP of the EU (minus the UK) is about $16trillion. Economically, the EU is over five times the size of the UK. The EU accounts for about 44% of the UK’s exports and 53% of the UK’s imports, so about 50% of the UK’s trade is with the EU, while only about 25% of the EU’s trade is with the UK.

Further, the EU leadership is very process-oriented, obeys the rules and is cohesive. The UK leadership, by contrast, hasn’t been very process-oriented, keeps trying to ignore the rules and certainly isn’t cohesive. The EU has been thinking seriously about Brexit’s effects, ever since Article 50 was invoked. The UK, however, hasn’t seriously thought through Brexit’s effects, and apparently is only now beginning to prepare for a hard Brexit.

Let’s clarify these contrasts by returning to the game of chicken model… Imagine the EU bus as a state-of-the-art Mercedes Benz bus, with every possible safety feature. The route has been agreed to, the driver of the bus has clear instructions, the 27 countries of the EU are strapped in with seat belts. They have airbags, the front of the bus has been strengthened against crash risk, and the bus is proceeding on the agreed route with a state-of-the-art GPS system.

Now, imagine the UK bus as a 1950s AEC Routemaster double-decker, with only 25% of the horsepower of the EU bus (to reflect the UK’s smaller size compared to the EU). The UK bus is being steered erratically according to its passengers’ shouts, has no maps or GPS, but is merely fixated on reaching a destination called Brexit. Unfortunately, almost half the passengers on the UK bus don’t want to go to Brexit. Those who do want Brexit can’t agree on what exactly Brexit is, and are split among themselves for hard Brexit, the Norway Option, the Swiss style Brexit, etc. Most passengers are completely oblivious to the fact that many of these options don’t exist in the real world, and are just figments of their imagination.

The UK double-decker Brexit-bound bus has no modern safety features. Its passengers refuse to prepare for a crash, and instead of being in brace position, they scream things like “Let me drive; No — let ME drive; This is your fault; No — it’s YOUR fault”.

Some UK passengers brag that, in the event of a crash, the UK will stop buying prosecco from Italy and stop buying cars made in the EU (the EU only exports about 11% of its car production to the UK). They’re resistant to the idea that the EU might retaliate (about 50% of UK car exports go to the EU). The EU passengers, meanwhile, are already aware that the UK depends on the EU for food and vital supplies, and have been discussing what their obligation would be to keep the UK fed, in the event of a hard Brexit (i.e., a crash).

I think it’s clear that, with May as Prime Minister, the EU will ignore the noise and assume the UK bus will pull over and be reasonable.

However, with Johnson at the wheel, the EU analysis would be completely different. The EU would know that, in the event of a crash (no matter how destructive it would be), Johnson would emerge unscathed and unconcerned about Brexit’s damage and consequences. With Johnson at the wheel, the EU will believe a crash is a real possibility.

Consequently, Johnson has the highest probability of forcing the EU bus to swerve (i.e., the EU offers new concessions). Of course, Johnson also maximises the probability that the EU (which is run by adults with real work to do) decide Brexit and Johnson are too much trouble, and if the UK’s citizens choose to put Johnson in charge — they deserve whatever happens to them.

If that bus crash occurs, Johnson can be counted on to surface somewhere (New York City, Brussels, etc.) to sell his memoirs, perhaps entitled — “I had my cake (and lots of other people’s too) — and ate it all.“

Originally published at on January 2, 2019.

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