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Limits of May’s ‘Project Faith’

Limits of May’s ‘Project Faith’

The economy, not Brexit, will be decisive

by Brian Reading in London

Fri 5 May 2017

Britain’s general election in 8 June will be decided by mugwumps and myrmidons. Mugwumps are moderates who reluctantly voted leave or remain, or even abstained, in the UK referendum on membership of the European Union. They are potential fence-sitters who can change their minds. Myrmidons never do so. They are irrevocably committed to one side or the other and some of them heap vitriol on those with whom they disagree.

During Britain’s referendum campaign, the electorate was not convinced by Project Fear’s forecasts of immediate recession if the country voted out, or that longer term doom and gloom would ensue. Project Faith in Prime Minister Theresa May’s safe pair of hands may equally misfire. The catchphrase ‘safe and stable’ can easily be countered by ‘weak and feeble’, particularly if it becomes ‘feak and weeble’. That will make people laugh, and humour is the most potent political weapon.

Myrmidons demand that May takes sides in the negotiations on Britain’s departure from the EU. But they can’t trust her to take their side. This means that the economic outlook, not the terms of the UK’s exit negotiations, will be the decisive election issue. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour party, sees this more clearly. May is still likely to win but with a far smaller increase in her majority than many expect.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called Corbyn a mugwump. American history says he called him a winner. Republicans who split to elect Democrat Grover Cleveland the 24th US president in 1884 were called mugwumps. Cleveland won by promoting social policies that appealed to both sides. Mythology has it that Myrmidons were warriors who fought with Achilles in the Trojan wars. The term is derived from the Greek for ant and has come to mean someone who blindly follows a powerful leader. The wars were won but Achilles was killed by an arrow fired into his heel by Paris. Project Faith is May’s Achilles’ heel.

In her proposals for EU departure May cannot favour one myrmidon side without alienating the other. Only mugwumps can be won over. But the EU has ruled out a compromise. Unconditional surrender would be a victory for Remainers, and unlikely. No deal a victory for Leavers.

Project Faith assumes mugwumps will give May a large majority. Even if there are enough of them willing to change their minds, which way will they change them? Project Fear failed twice over. It did not win and there was no immediate apocalypse. This should have either confirmed mugwumps in their support for Leave or convinced them to switch to it. Yet support for leaving does not seem to be rising. It could yet do so, if forecasts that the economy is slowing prove wide of the mark in the run up to the election.

If Brexit isn’t going to be the deciding factor in the way people vote, then the economy will take centre stage. Corbyn is Trump. He presses all the right buttons for the man in the street. He promises more for the health service, more for the police, more taxes on companies and the rich, and more and cheaper homes. Very cleverly, he takes no sides in the Brexit debate. As with Trump, his promises do not add up.

Nearly 4m voted for the UK Independence Party in 2015. Assume one million of them won’t vote in June and half will vote Tory. These are the myrmidons who will determine the outcome. Lib Dems and Greens are betting on mugwumps. They can have local success but national failure.

I have never been into a betting shop or made a bet. But if this campaign comes down to the nitty-gritty that affects ordinary voters (if they vote, it is not a forgone conclusion) Brexit will not be the issue. It’ll be the economy, stupid. I’d bet on a 10-seat Tory gain.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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