Obligatory #brexit post

So, the UK might be leaving the EU, eh? I say 'might', because the major conspiracy theories (at this stage) about this possible #brexit seem to hinge on whether the parliamentary leaders of the Leave (or Breleave, if you will) case will actually follow through on the referendum results and invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (i.e. do the thing which initiates the formal proceedings).

Now, let's leave to one side wishful thinking (which I think a lot of the 'The UK isn't really going to leave the EU; surely no one is taking that option seriously!' is), and ask what's up with the various scenarios. Because – as far as I'm concerned – there are two major conspiracy theories doing the rounds at the moment.1

Theory 1: Boris Johnson and company just wanted to get rid of David Cameron.

By now most of us will have seen a number of representative quotes from MP (and de facto leader of the Leave campaign) Boris2 Johnson, which indicate that Johnson – until very recently – thought leaving the EU would be a disaster for the UK. Almost all of us will also now be aware that certain claims by the Leave camp – and promoted by Johnson – do not look like they are true; it's not the case £350 million can be diverted from the EU to the NHS (National Health Service), it looks like immigration will continue in very much the same way if the UK wants access to Europe, etc.

Now, people can (and do) change their minds; Johnson may very well have been persuaded that the UK is better off outside the EU than in it. Still, given Johnson's earlier remarks, and the fact the leaders of the Leave camp have rescinded almost all of their claims about the benefits of leaving the EU, et cetera et cetera, one has to wonder 'What were the leaders of Leave really up to?'

Now, let's make the reasonable assumption that the leaders of a movement can be different in kind and intent to the supporters of a movement. For example, no matter what you think of Stalin (a communist leader), it would be wrong to tar all communists as being Stalinist. Stalin can purport to be the ideal communist, and yet act in a way which is divergent from the belief of his communist supporters.

Now, I'm not saying Boris Johnson, Michael Gove (and the company of Leave campaigners) are just like Stalin. What I am saying is that the leaders of the movement they might not have been whole-hearted supporters of the Leave campaign. Actually, I'm not even committed to that claim; this is just a hypothetical examination of a particular conspiracy theory. I don't have to believe in any of this in order to simply examine it.3 What is clear is that certain issues were campaigned on, which Johnson, Gove, and company have backed away from. Indeed, if you believe Johnson, the UK can continue to have all the benefits (and much of the obligations) of membership with the EU without being a member of the EU, which does cause people to wonder whether the Leave campaign was more a dig against David Cameron.

David Cameron is (but not for long) the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the reason why this mess exists in the first place. His government was re-elected on the notion there would be a plebiscite about the UK's membership of the EU, a move which many said could end in disaster. Cameron himself has always appeared to be a lukewarm supporter of the EU; happy to say that the EU was an institution was important, yet always willing to take a crack at insulting the EU and its members whenever politically expedient.

Johnson has long been suspected of wanting to be PM, and Cameron has been seen as stifling Johnson's ambitions. As such, with Cameron coming out in support of Remain, some have taken Johnson and company's switch to Leave as mere political expedience. It has allowed Johnson to act as a kind of opposition leader (especially since the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was in the Remain camp). Evidence for the political expedience these might be seen in the curious fact that since notice of Cameron's resignation, Johnson and company have been in no great rush to invoke Article 50, as if they already got what they wanted.

Although, it has to be said, if this was the plan, it was certainly not a foolproof one, given how everyone assumed the Remain camp was going to win…

Theory 2: David Cameron and company have ensured, through his resignation, that #brexit will not happen

This one is trickier, and relies on knowing about the theory above. What if Cameron and associates have ensured that #brexit won't happen by forcing Johnson and company's hands?

Imagine, if you will, that Johnson wants Article 50 invoked, but does not want to be the one to do it. Rather, he expected that Cameron would do, should Leave win. Now, if Cameron initiated the formal split with Europe, no matter who ended up guiding the negotiations (so the theory goes), Cameron would be the one blamed for whatever bad things eventuated (or so the common wisdom goes).

Now, Cameron prior to the referendum result becoming public regularly asserted that Article 50 would need to be invoked post haste. However, his resignation the day after the referendum result came with the following caveat: the invocation of Article 50 would be at the behest of whoever succeeded him. If we assume Johnson wants to be Prime Minister (which everyone assumes he does), then he has a poisoned chalice on his hands. Either he invokes Article 50, and deals with the fallout, or he accepts that invoking Article 50 would be a bad idea, and he decides not to cause a #brexit. This in turn ruins his political career (given he hitched his masthead to the #brexit cause).

Now, this might not be a conspiracy, simply in virtue of it just being Cameron's plan, but if we add in Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne, suddenly we have two people plotting, and thus a potential conspiracy.

The problem

Both of these conspiracy theories have a shared problem; they make some pretty big assumptions about the intelligence and ability of the conspirators. I do not say this to be snide; I am personally quite ambivalent as to whether Boris Johnson is a buffoon, or simply someone who has realised portraying himself as a buffoon is electoral gold. However, in both cases the conspirators – if their conspiracies are to be successful – are banking on events they have no real control over.

Take the first theory, for example. It was never clear that the Leave campaign was going to win, with the common wisdom being that the Remain campaign would win by a slight margin.4 It's not clear Johnson's career would have had a sticky end if Remain had won; his position on the EU has been all over the place in the last six months to the point that – quite plausibly – he could easily reinvent himself as the man who listened to the people, and realised the UK was better in than out. However, banking on a win to get rid of Cameron seems like a long shot, and the potential risk of being lumbered with a loss (and at one stage what looked to be a significant loss) could have been disastrous. Unless you think Johnson was willing to bet the farm (what a quaint metaphor!) on backing Leave just to push Cameron out, then you'd be better off believing the theory that says Johnson was a sincere (but perhaps not particularly honest) backer of a #brexit, who just happened to get something else he wanted (Cameron's resignation) as a consequence of being on the winning side of the debate.

The second theory assumes a fair amount about Cameron and his cronies, too. At the moment the common wisdom is that the EU will play hardball, and the UK will not get a good deal post leaving the EU. But if Johnson turns out to be right, then Cameron will look like the captain who refused to go down with the ship (another quaint metaphor!). Then there's the worry that both Scotland and Northern Ireland might seek independence; if Johnson ends up being PM and Scotland and/or Northern Ireland eventually decide to remain members of the UK, then Johnson may well end up getting plaudits for an issue created by Cameron. Cameron, after all, was the person who initiated the referendum, and hung his political future on the result.

If I were to express a personal opinion on all of this, it would be to state that it's very easy to assume there is more going on here than is immediately apparent. It is possible that the leaders of both Remain and Leave ran campaigns to respectively remain or leave the EU, and whilst they might well be making the most of the result, that doesn't tell us much more than 'Politicians be politicians, yo!' Which is not to say there is no conspiracy; conspiracies are a way of life, especially in politics. But sometimes assuming the existence of a conspiracy requires making some claims about the intelligence of politicians which seem, on reflection in this case, maybe a little implausible.

Then again, as some psychologists like to point out when talking about the reasoning patterns of convicted criminals, many people think their unlikely plans will work out. There's nothing like unguarded optimism to get you into trouble.


  1. This is not an exhaustive list, and neither theory is exclusive of the other. I'm only committed to claiming these theories are representative of a spread.
  2. Whose name I just misspelt as 'Borish'.
  3. I do think Nigel Farage sincerely believes in the Leave cause. The reason why he sincerely believes it (his unreconstructed xenophobia) is not a good thing, however.
  4. Indeed, the fact the UK Parliament has to at least discuss the possibility of a second referendum (due to a popular petition) is because someone in the Leave camp feared a Remain victory.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.


  1. Surely that should be “politicians be politicking, yo!” – I begin to doubt your credentials as a street-smart avatar of modern youth.

Comments are closed.