Boris Johnson as a model of rational choice? Understanding the PM’s Brexit strategy

Filipa Figueira, Teaching Fellow at UCL SSEES, assesses Boris Johnson’s decisions as PM. She notes that his behaviour is perfectly understandable, and perhaps even predictable, if we adopt a rational choice perspective. As such, he is a useful case study for those seeking to study such behavioural models.

Boris Johnson’s recent election victory may have upset many, but on the bright side it could be useful to those of us who are interested in the economic and political theories of rational choice. Those theories aim to understand and forecast behavior, based on the assumption that individuals act in a rational way, as to maximise the benefits and minimise the costs of their actions. As such, as an extreme case of a self-centered political actor, Johnson could potentially become a useful case study of political behaviour.

Cynical as we may often be towards politicians, such a case is thankfully rare—most policymakers combine a certain amount of self-interest with a fair amount of civic sense. In rational choice terms, they are therefore maximising both their own “utility function” (i.e. their own happiness) and the society’s “welfare function” (i.e. the sum of every citizen’s happiness), as well as a whole range of other objectives, such as ideological values. This is of course a positive thing, but it makes the job harder for academics trying to model political behaviour. It’s hard enough to work out one person’s utility function, let alone the sum of every citizen’s function!

With Johnson, that is no longer a problem. His behaviour can be easily understood as solely a function of his own utility function, and that function can be roughly estimated as:

Utility = function of (probability of winning next election)

This simple function explains a lot. For example, back in the autumn, many were puzzled by Johnson’s apparent willingness to risk a disastrous no-deal Brexit. Why was he taking such a reckless risk? Did he seriously believe that it wouldn’t have a disastrous impact on the British economy? Or was he counting on MPs to block a no-deal situation at the last minute?

Yet all becomes simpler when we apply our formula. Any impact on the British economy was simply *not included* in Johnson’s calculation. He simply calculated that threatening no-deal resulted in more Brexit Party voters switching their allegiance to him and the Conservative Party. This calculation was perfectly rational, as can be seen from the graph below, which shows how, from the moment Johnson became PM, voter support began to decrease for the Brexit Party and increase for the Conservative Party.

FF graphy

Source: YouGov, 2019

Johnson therefore easily won the December election. In much the same way, we can understand Johnson’s recent decision to legislate that December 2020 would mark the end of the transition period. Does he seriously think that such complex negotiations can be successfully carried out in less than a year? Does he not realise that, by setting this deadline in stone, he is weakening the UK’s bargaining position, which will likely lead to a less favourable deal?

The answer is, again, that such concerns do not enter his utility function. Much in the same way that threatening no-deal increased Johnson’s support among Brexit Party voters, it is now increasing his support among the working classes recently converted to Conservatism, and whose support he needs to secure and retain. Johnson doesn’t actually *wish* to get a less good deal, he is simply indifferent to it as long as he gets re-elected.

But, you may ask, isn’t there an overlap between the social welfare function and a politician’s own utility function? Surely, for a politician to be re-elected, he also needs to please the voters to a certain extent? The answer, mercifully, is yes. Whenever Johnson’s utility function happens to coincide with the social welfare function, he will do what is right for the country.

For example, we can see this when it comes to overall government spending. Following a decade of economic austerity (seen as excessive and counter-productive by a large number of economists), it is good for the country to increase government spending. By a happy coincidence, this also happens to be what voters want Johnson to do. In that case, the most optimistic predictions of rational choice could come true: the self-interested politician’s optimal policy choice coincides with the country’s optimal policy choice.

Here is, therefore, one benefit for society in Johnson’s electoral victory; in spite of him, but you can’t have it all.

Dr Filipa Figueira is a Teaching Fellow at UCL SSEES and Academic Director of the Centre for Comparative Studies of Emerging Economies (CCSEE).

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo by UK Parliament on Flickr.

2 thoughts on “Boris Johnson as a model of rational choice? Understanding the PM’s Brexit strategy

  1. Nice article. Johnson is a model study of the pure office seeker, Useful to be reminded of how damaging this can be in policy terms.


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