Kathy Sheridan: Brexit is a monument to Tory overconfidence

Faulty assessments, unrealistic expectations and hazardous decisions are UK’s norm

Boris Johnson on BBC’s “The Andrew Marr Show”: crowned Idiot of the Year by the “Economist”. Photograph: Jeff Overs

Boris Johnson on BBC’s “The Andrew Marr Show”: crowned Idiot of the Year by the “Economist”. Photograph: Jeff Overs

 

If there is anything more head-melting than Theresa May’s red lines finally colliding with the brick wall of reality, it is the panting egos positioning themselves to replace her, the ones responsible for what a BBC reporter called the “blaring, screeching chaos” in the House of Commons this week.

It can only get worse.

Since the Tory leadership race will begin with voting rounds by the party’s 315 MPs to whittle the list to two (then put to a ballot of the 124,000 party members), the candidates’ imperative is to start with the loudest bang.

To do that, some will present as a dynamic duo – as Boris Johnson and David Davis are planning to do by some accounts. Given the thrilling denouement to the Johnson-Gove partnership, this promises to be hilarious and disconcerting.

On Monday, the ex-foreign secretary was tweeting that “we are told”[by whom? In what context? ] that the EU “does not even like the backstop . . . so why on earth is it there ? Let us get rid of it and move on.” Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg was telling journalists that even if May removed the backstop entirely from the withdrawal agreement, it wouldn’t be enough. These men are on the same side.

Johnson’s other brilliant idea this week was that the UK should dishonour the divorce deal, withholding the legally agreed payment to “incentivise” a free trade deal. To which the BBC host, Andrew Marr, replied : “We are an honourable law-based society . . . We have solemnly promised it as a government . . . That’s a kind of political gangsterism.”

It is all that. But who cares anymore?

Idiot of the Year

In adulatory tones that would choke an Irish political journalist, the Daily Telegraph’s man tweeted about Johnson’s performance: “His passion for Brexit burns bright. His friends liken him to CS Lewis’s Narnia series ready to end the rule of the ice queen . . . His moment could come this week.”

Johnson’s other brilliant idea this week was that the UK should dishonour the divorce deal, withholding the legally agreed payment to “incentivise” a free trade deal

Next day, Johnson was crowned Idiot of the Year in the savagely competitive category of the Economist awards and dubbed “the most irresponsible politician the country has seen for many years”.

Lest this seems just another tilt at an irrelevant British politician, note that failed foreign secretary Johnson and failed Brexit secretary Dominic Raab are 6/1 joint favourites in British betting odds on the next Tory prime minister. Since leadership, as Stanley McCrystal suggests in Leaders: Myth and Reality, is more often about what leaders symbolise than what they achieve, we should brace ourselves.

It is the undentable confidence of these political failures that is mindboggling. As Brexiters in chief, they have now had 1,000 days to arrange their magical post-referendum flight to sunny uplands and unicorns, during which the 48 per cent had no power in any forum to slow their gallop. Yet they are under water, a laughing stock, and still fancy themselves with the key to 10 Downing Street.

Mediocre past

Politicians’ inability to see a mediocre past as an impediment to world domination is hardly new. But given this lot’s achievement in laying waste a country’s spirit, honour and global standing in a mere couple of years, the time has come to put the spotlight on one particular culprit. Step forward, Overconfidence.

UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn: has managed to say little to nothing for two and a half years while watching his country slide into ignominy. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn: has managed to say little to nothing for two and a half years while watching his country slide into ignominy. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Overconfidence may seem like a benign little trait, with a roguish, boys-will-be-boys quality about it. But it leads to faulty assessments, unrealistic expectations and hazardous decisions in politics, in the words of scientists Dominic Johnson and James Fowler, “so it remains a puzzle how such a false belief could evolve or remain stable in a population of competing strategies that include accurate, unbiased beliefs”. That was written in 2011, pre-Brexit and pre-Trump.

They are under water, a laughing stock, and still fancy themselves with the key to 10 Downing Street

As a dangerous and dangerously underestimated psychological bias, overconfidence deserves much wider attention. It was rampant here in the mid-2000s when those who questioned the fundamentals of the economy were told they were the ones who were depressive and deluded.

In Westminster, overconfidence has wreaked more destruction in a shorter span than any luminary immortalised in a statue nearby.

“Does [Theresa May] not get it by now that the withdrawal agreement legally binding text is unacceptable to this house?” wondered a supremely confident Nigel Dodds amid the Monday chaos. A cheeky question from the DUP man about May’s 28-country efforts given that the second anniversary of his own regional assembly’s suspension is looming. But that’s how overconfidence works.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn (4/1 to be the new PM), the leader of the opposition who has managed to say little to nothing for 2½ years while watching his country slide into ignominy, is suddenly promising the DUP that Labour’s Brexit negotiation “absolutely” can work for them too. Sure it can.

Overconfidence deserves a monument all to itself in a prominent part of Westminster’s Parliament Square and around parliaments worldwide.

Ideas about the image to be used might be entertaining.

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