The science of crisis: Why Brexit Britain will turn to Theresa May

"She is the overwhelming favourite to win the leadership, supported by many more MPs than her rivals"
"She is the overwhelming favourite to win the leadership, supported by many more MPs than her rivals"

By Alexander Shea

There's an interesting phenomenon in the academic study of political crises. In the days immediately following the outbreak, political electorates become more polarised than ever. They enter into mutual recrimination and look at their neighbours with a newfound distrust. In the case of Brexit, many distraught Remain voters have asked 'how COULD someone vote LEAVE?' They equate the vote with moral bankruptcy. Conversely, Leave voters spy an establishment stitch-up. They expect Westminster to find a way to annul the vote.

This turn to mutual recrimination is a well-documented trend in the political psychology of crises. The social psychologist Lawrence Leshaun called it 'black and white reality'. News reports detail the domestic feuds that have emerged within families. On social media, we typecast our opponents as  racists, corrupt or even evil. Political sensibilities sharpen, creating a war-like feel to society, as if we're combatting an internal enemy.

But this stage doesn't last long. As a political crisis intensifies, the psychology of electorates reverses. From a position of internal infighting, the public suddenly converges on the insistence that all division should be suppressed in the name of unity.


Populations rally behind a strong, unifying leader and respond favourably to politicians who promise to apply balm to social divisions. This is known as the 'rally' effect. The pattern has been used to explain why Lyndon Johnson - a contentious leader before Kennedy's assassination - became popular immediately upon assuming the  presidency, or why George W. Bush - initially much criticised after 9/11 - jumped 20% in approval ratings the next month as the US electorate rallied.

Such a 'rallying' effect is now occurring in Britain. Across BBC Question Time, radio phone-ins and newspaper polls, the electorate has begun to demand political unity, fearing a political breakdown or a weak, internally-divided government being outmuscled by Brussels in negotiations over Brexit.

This volte-face in the electorate's outlook accounts for the recent political manoeuvres of leading Conservative politicians, each eager to secure the keys to 10 Downing Street by presenting themselves as the 'unifying' candidate. Boris Johnson began last week with an article in the Telegraph whose tone was remarkably different from that which had led Leave to victory just days before. Johnson, having won the vote by exploiting tensions in society, now claimed to be the individual most able to resolve the  very conflicts he authored.  Stephen Crabb, Andrea Leasdom and Liam Fox have all presented themselves as 'One Nation' Conservatives who would unite working, middle and upper classes.

But the impact of the rallying effect on the political prospects of Theresa May is particularly interesting, for three reasons.

First, she is the overwhelming favourite to win the leadership, supported by many more MPs than her rivals.

Second, she's set to benefit from a particularity of the rally effect. Electorates look for strong leaders during crises, but as we now know from a study performed by Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, they prefer these strong leaders to be women. Female leaders are viewed as better arbiters of conflict and as exerting a ‘mothering,’ soothing effect upon society. Indeed, YouGov polling suggests the electorate instinctively prefers May and Leasdom over their male competitors.

Third, May is pragmatic on the EU and alert to the advantages of membership. It’s no coincidence that Conservatives such as Ken Clarke and Matthew Parris are supporters. In a 2014 speech, May noted that those "who argue that we are better of out of the E.U, whatever the conditions, are entirely wrong". As home secretary she opted back in to 35 protocols that the UK opted out of when it signed the Lisbon Treaty - including the supra-national Prum Convention on Cross Border Information Sharing and the European Arrest Warrant. May has also recently dropped her opposition to Britain’s membership of the European Court of Human Rights.

Could a May premiership see a row-back on the full repercussions of a Brexit?

Such a possibility became apparent during May's leadership launch last Thursday. "Brexit is Brexit," May announced, attempting to shore up her support among Leave voters wary of her Remain credentials. This might seem worrying from a Remain perspective, but consider this: the topic of Brexit was left at that.

May stated that 'Brexit is Brexit' but she skirted away from confronting what Brexit actually means. This was her route to becoming the unity candidate: uttering a political tautology in a categorical manner. It was designed to abate the worries of anxious Leavers and convey the impression that she’d deal with the issue conclusively. It shelved discussion of the European issue. There was no mention of whether Brexit meant a Norwegian, 'Albanian' or Canadian model, or anything else for that matter.

Then consider the manner in which  May outsourced responsibility for resolving Brexit to a future, 'expert' government department. It's a very compelling illusion, which tries to solve an ideological question with a technocratic answer. This proposal was genius in appealing to the wishful thinking of Remainers and Leavers alike. Leavers were reassured that, with its own specialist ministry, Brexit could not be ignored under May. Remainers could reach the opposite conclusion. Staffed by the ‘experts’ deplored by Leave - experts likely to be aware of the benefits of EU membership - such a department would surely rollback Brexit.

Hope for Remainers lies therefore in three psychological forces playing in their favour.

First, the call for unity favours non-committal candidates such as May who espouse vague support for Brexit to appease voters, without providing substance as to what it really means.

Second, the bias towards female candidates during crises is to May’s political advantage. With her pragmatism over the EU, this offers the hope that a May administration would gently rowback Brexit.

Third, May offers the prospect of Brexit being kicked into the political long grass. Outsourcing responsibility over Brexit to a future ministry could reassure an overwhelmed electorate that experts will solve the issue on their behalf, calming the sense of urgency surrounding the topic and allowing attention to slowly turn anew to domestic issues. In the interlude, ‘events, dear boy, events’ could shift the public’s mood on Brexit. Polls already suggest that many Leave voters regret their decision.

The Leave campaign does not have a monopoly over the psychological forces at play over Brexit. It might appeal to the 'us versus them' politics of immigration, or claim to represent the ordinary man against the elite, but Remainers can take solace. There are significant forces pulling in their favour too.

Alexander Shea is a  freelance journalist who recently graduated with an MPhil in International Relations from Oxford. Follow him on Twitter.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners

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