Simon Usherwood on Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and the Nested Games of British Politics

Simon Usherwood

Simon Usherwood is a Professor of Politics & International Studies at the Open University, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Surrey’s Centre for Britain & Europe and a National Teaching Fellow. Simon coauthored (along with John Pindar) The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. He recently coedited (along with Agnès Alexandre-Collier and Pauline Schnapper) The Nested Games of Brexit.

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Politics requires complex and ongoing engagement by all of us. There are lots of elements that hang together. The Brexit process has really highlighted that whatever we decide to do that has knock-on consequences and those knock-on consequences have knock-on consequences of their own which might come back and affect our original decision. Everything is connected and we are never going to have something that’s going to make everybody happy.

Simon Usherwood

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:48
  • The Rise of Boris Johnson – 3:44
  • Why Boris Johnson Resigned – 16:40
  • What are Nested Games – 23:48
  • Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – 31:55
  • What Have we Learned about Democracy? 40:23

Podcast Transcript

Many of you have probably heard Liz Truss is the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She is now the fourth Prime Minister since the Brexit Referendum in 2016. Her election was preceded by the resignation of the charismatic Boris Johnson who served as Prime Minister for a little more than three years. Many political observers saw parallels between Johnson and Trump so his resignation is viewed as an alternate window for those who wanted Congress to remove Trump from power. 

In reality, it’s a lot more complicated than that. The British Parliamentary system has its advantages, but also its disadvantages. In particular, I wanted to explore how political dynamics affect the selection of its highest political office. So, I reached out to Simon Usherwood to help us better understand Johnson’s resignation and the recent election for Prime Minister. 

Simon is a professor of political and international studies at the Open University. Some of you might remember him as a coauthor of The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. He’s also the coeditor of a new volume called The Nested Games of Brexit. 

I thought the concept of nested games was a perfect way to think about recent events in British politics. So, we’ll talk a little about this concept as we discuss Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, and Liz Truss. 

But I’d like to take a quick moment to thank everyone who has provided ratings and reviews especially on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. The podcast is just five ratings away from fifty on Apple and two away from 20 on Spotify. So, please leave a 5 star rating. Ratings on other apps are also appreciated and word of mouth is always effective as well. Now, one last thing. This interview was recorded last week before Liz Truss had won. Her victory was expected but our conversation really did not depend on the outcome. Anyway, here is my conversation with Simon Usherwood…


Simon Usherwood, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Simon Usherwood

Thanks very much for having me. It’s a pleasure.


Now, Simon, Boris Johnson is the current prime minister, at least for the next few days and I feel that he’s been a figure who’s been very important to British politics for a long time. It’s hard to really find a beginning for when to talk about Boris Johnson, but I think that a good place to start might be with the Brexit campaign where he is one of the central figures who disrupts party politics. Can you explain a little bit about Boris Johnson, his importance to British politics, and the role that he played in this Brexit campaign?

Simon Usherwood

Johnson’s a really odd character politically. If you look at his sort of revealed preferences in terms of what he actually does, he’s actually quite liberal, if you look at him in the long run. Already before the referendum, he was already challenging assumptions about what was possible politically when he won the race to become Mayor of London. So, London is a very left leaning city historically and here was somebody standing under a conservative flag winning, not one but two terms in the mayor’s office. So, showing that he could do that. That he could reach a group of voters that were not normally there for the Tories was a really important part of that kind of mythology and this idea that he’s a, a uniquely successful electoral campaigner.

But for me, the key thing is that Johnson is not somebody who is viscerally anti-EU. His early career was as a political journalist. He was based in Brussels. He used to return very colorful copy about all kinds of crazy stories coming from the EU which were lapped up by the press, because EU politics is boring which is one of the reasons I like it. You know, here was this guy coming with very funny pieces and very silly stories and Brussels bashing is always going to get you some traction in the media. But it wasn’t really deeply felt. It was more, ‘Oh, this is all a bit stupid.’

And I think we have to remember that his choice to go with the leave campaign in 2016 was exactly that. It was a choice. He himself weighed the options. He famously wrote two articles. One in support of membership and one against to kind of work through his thoughts. Then he went with the one that he felt was stronger which was the leave one. Now that tells you something a bit about how he’s a approached this. It also tells you something about his motivations in all of this. That for him, his personal project has always been to be important to be prime minister. In his childhood, he talked about becoming world king. So, I don’t think he’s quite going to manage that, but he’s had a fair crack of the whip in all of that.

So, for him in identifying with the leave campaign, I think he saw the potential to make a name for himself. He knew that Cameron would have to step down if he lost and that if he, Johnson, were a key figure in that leave campaign, he would be very well placed to step in and take over. That would’ve been what would’ve happened in 2016, if he hadn’t been stabbed, not so much in the back, but multiple times in the front by his close supporter Michael Gove. So, that’s what let Theresa May come through.

But this opportunistic kind of approach of Johnson really has set a lot of the tone for what’s happened since, because even when he wasn’t in number 10 as prime minister, he was pushing and prodding May around the edges. Partly because he was speaking for a constituency, but also, he saw the potential that May was not long for her time in office. He wanted the job that she would be vacating. And ultimately, he got that in 2019. So, I think here Johnson is driven primarily by his self-advancement rather than by any grand ideals.

I think the mark of that is when we get a new prime minister, I do not think that Boris Johnson is going to be pushing for a particular set of policy issues either on Brexit or indeed on anything else. I think he’ll be happy to go back into becoming a media commentator. He will doubtless write a book that will sell very well and have a regular column in newspapers and pop up on the TV all the time.

But I don’t think he’s actually interested in becoming influential in order to sell a project. I’m sure listeners can think of other politicians in other countries who might well take the same kind of approach. You know, that they want to be the man and it always is a man, rather than that they have some kind of thing they want to be doing for the greater good or for anyone’s good other than their own.


It seemed to me that when he took the side of the Leavers that it wasn’t just a sense that he expected it to win, that he expected that side of the referendum to come out ahead in the election. But that even if it lost, he thought that he was going to have political advantages. That he would represent this large constituency. That even if David Cameron remained the prime minister for some time, it was going to put him in a very strong position in the future.

So, he saw it as a win-win. If the referendum won, David Cameron would be out of the picture and if the referendum lost or rather if the Leavers lost, he was still going to be in a strong position of representing a very large constituency that was going to think of him as more or less one of the key leaders of that movement.

Simon Usherwood

Yeah, I think there’s certainly a lot in that. Again, this is, I think, an important difference from the American system. The presidency is locked into its cycle and to break that cycle is essentially impossible. Best case you manage to remove a president and then you get the vice president. You stick with your terms in an office. In the UK that doesn’t apply. You can change prime ministers twice a week, if you wanted to and let’s not get to that. But there’s the potential in the system that if the governing party or coalition decides that they’re changing leaders, they change leaders.

So, we are going through an extended process here again in 2022 same as we did back in 2019 when we had a shorter process. You know, Theresa May moved from not looking to become prime minister to becoming prime minister in about six weeks. So, you can do it actually very quickly if you want. You can do it even more quickly than was done in 2016. So, that opportunity to step in, to fill a gap that’s suddenly become available is just not there in the American model.

That’s both a strength and a weakness. The weakness is that you can always be kicked out by your party rather than by the legislature as a whole. But the strength is that it should make for leaders who are more responsive to their party’s needs. That you need to keep your party behind you, otherwise, there’s always somebody willing to kind of throw a stick in the spokes and try and get rid of you and step into the breach.


So, why did the conservatives eventually select Boris Johnson as their prime minister? Because it sounds like there’s both a lot of people who wanted to leave the European Union that very much supported him, but I’m assuming that there are a lot of people that wanted to remain within the European Union that supported Cameron and May that would not want to select Boris Johnson. So, why did they ultimately decide to pick him to represent their party and to become the prime minister of the United Kingdom?

Simon Usherwood

An important starting point in this is to remember that when we’re talking about choosing a prime minister, we’re not talking about the electorate as a whole. We’re not even talking about that many people. In the first instance, it is members of parliament who are deciding. So, members of parliament for the Conservative Party. They’re the ones who gatekeep this whole process. If the Conservatives decide that they’re going to get a new leader, then it’s, first of all, the MPs who whittle it down to the last two candidates and then it’s thrown open to the party membership which is about 100-150,000 people around the UK. You get to vote and they choose. So, the electorate here is not representative on pretty much any level. I think that’s an important point.

I also think the Conservative Party by the time Theresa May was starting to lose her authority, which was already six months in when she had her snap general election in 2017, the party had swung quite heavily behind leaving. So, leaving was what the party was going to be doing. There wasn’t really a question of, ‘Are we going to revisit this?’ But the decision to choose Johnson was essentially informed by the fact that May had recognized that she had run out of road. She didn’t have a parliamentary majority for any option with negotiations with the European Union.

The only thing she could do to try to swing some more rebels in her own party behind her plans was to say, ‘I’m stepping down. You’ll get rid of me. You’ll get some other leader, but just the price of that is you need to help me get through the next stage of the process.’ And she failed in that as well. What Johnson offered was a way through what was a major blockage in the political system. He was the one who said, ‘I will get Brexit done.’ So, he loves his three word slogans and in the referendum it was ‘Taking Back Control.’ Now in 2019, it was ‘Get Brexit Done.’

That works on many levels mainly because most people were so sick of hearing and talking about Brexit that they just wanted to not have to talk about it anymore. That was very independent from what kind of Brexit it might be or how it might be done. They just wanted it out of their lives. It’s like the housekeeping. You don’t want to do it, but it needs to be done. So, he didn’t really have a plan for getting it done. Ultimately, what he did practically was make another concession to the EU and then sold it as a big win which was enough to convince fellow MPs that this was worthwhile.

The boost he had to his standing allowed him to go for a general election and he was able to exploit the kind of the disunity of opposition parties who didn’t like the plan that was on the table, but they didn’t have a better alternative. So, he smashed through a lot of the opposition with the 2019 election. Huge majority, historically speaking. Eighty seat majority. So, insulated from internal rebellion, high personal stock, he was able to basically steamroll through a package which was not really that different from what May had put together. But he was able to present it as a win and to move things on.

So, ever since that point at the end of 2019, early 2020, he was able to trade on, ‘I got Brexit done.’ Even though he mentions that there are still lots of problems with Brexit and how it’s been done and when he finds out who’s negotiated the deal that he’s complaining about, he’ll be furious. So, for him, Brexit was his calling card. You know, he was able to say, ‘I campaigned for it. I delivered it.’ Basically. ‘I cut through all the problems that my predecessors had and sorted this out.’ Then that was it really for Brexit. You know, he didn’t really care about the consequences or the ramifications of it that have been very extensive and multiple.

Frankly speaking, COVID was a very helpful development in that sense. It gave an obvious alternative focus. It gave a reason for why things might be economically problematic or politically problematic. ‘Well, you know, COVID’s changed the world’ and it has, but it’s changed the UK even more because there’s also been this very major disruption that’s followed from the decision to leave the EU.


And he’s also taken advantage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to look like a strong leader on the international stage. He’s gotten a lot of support from the Ukrainian government, because he’s seen as a very strong ally of Ukraine. I mean, there’s a lot of different issues where you can think of Boris Johnson’s record as prime minister as being very mixed on different things where there are some things that he did better, some things that he did very poorly, and some things that at the end of the day are kind of in between the two. But he wasn’t really brought down by policies. He wasn’t brought down by anything that his government did in terms of legislation. Can you talk a little bit about the series of events that eventually brought about Boris Johnson’s actual resignation?

Simon Usherwood

Gosh, that’s a huge topic, because there’s so much. The fundamental thing is that Boris Johnson can’t help but being Boris Johnson. A key part of what makes his charismatic model work is that he knows that it’s ridiculous that he’s in this position, that he’s prime minister. It’s that metaphorical and sometimes literal wink to the camera. Like, ‘You can’t believe I’m doing this. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but we’re going to do this anyway.’ I think of it as quite a British style of humor. That it’s just like, he can never quite take it seriously. And the most painful things to watch from him are the things where he is trying to be sincere or he is being sincere. It’s just like this isn’t you. It’s not what you do.

You know, he has a lifetime of experience of that dry, British humor, the waspish asides, you know, the sneaky little comments. People like that. They think that politicians are boring and that they’re reserved and careful about what they say. So, here’s a guy who’s saying seemingly whatever comes into his mind. Again, listeners may think of other examples of that kind of thing. It works, because it’s a person who is like them even though, so obviously it is not a person like them. This is a person of a very privileged upbringing who’s had life experiences that are not life experiences that the rest of us have had.

Yet he’s able to kind of make that kind of connection. You know, the guy you want to go and have a drink with in the pub in a way that you would never want to sit down in a pub with Theresa May, because that would just be so boring. She’d be awkward. You’d be awkward. You don’t get that with Boris Johnson. So, for him, I think this inability to treat things seriously ultimately is at the root of what brings him down. That throughout his time in office it became apparent that he didn’t really see why he should follow the rules. The rules of democracy, as much as this is how you must run your office or the records you keep or the rules you should be following, but even just the rules of the game.

It’s a very tempting thing to do when you think you can charm your way out of it. That kind of classic British private school education that you’ve got an answer for everything. You give that broad smile and say, ‘I’m terribly sorry. Let’s move on. This doesn’t really matter.’ And at one level it doesn’t really matter, but ultimately it does catch up with you. So, for Johnson, what we saw was this unraveling during COVID where what he was doing in policy terms was all right.

But I’d actually question your saying that he did some things well, because apart from Ukraine, I can’t actually think of anything he has done particularly well. The COVID response was particularly dubious. Economically, he did very little. Brexit is highly problematic. So, he ends up kind of bending the rules and what we have is ultimately, and possibly ironically, a whole series of scandals around him. Basically, breaking the rules of holding parties in number 10 for his staff, which he kind of twists and slips and evades. It’s a work event, but it turns out to be a work event with 20 people and 40 bottles of wine and catering, most of which is in liquid form.

All of these kind of things where he can never bring himself to say, ‘I’ve messed up here and I need to take the rap for it.’ It’s always like, ‘I’ve got a reason for it’ or the wording’s ambiguous at some level. It becomes very legalistic. It’s that kind of Clintonian it depends on what the meaning of is, is kind of line where you just look really shifty. With that the impact of it was not immediately with MPs as such, because I think MPs always knew exactly what kind of guy Boris Johnson was. It’s more that voters who also knew exactly what kind of a person Boris Johnson was realized or decided that they weren’t prepared to put up with this kind of thing anymore.

So, you see this collapse of his personal support and for Johnson, that’s critical. Because again, going back to what we said before, he’s not somebody who’s got an ideology. There’s no Johnsonism and he doesn’t have a project. Because he doesn’t have that ideological grounding, he doesn’t really have a natural constituency within his party. So, he doesn’t have people who will stand by him. It’s very opportunistic and opportunism works well when you are on the up, but when you’re on the way down, you don’t have that safety net.

So, very quickly, those who supported him were not prepared to stand by him anymore and it was not helped by him throwing pretty much everyone under the bus in trying to get out of all of these scandals whether that’s members of his private office, members of his government, members of his cabinets, you know, serious people. He was happy just making them go out and do interviews and then half an hour later completely undermining what they’ve said or contradicting what they’ve said.

At some point you’re going to have enough of that and ultimately what brought him down is that his unreliability, his slipperiness became a liability too far. For MPs, their awareness that we are coming around to a point in the electoral cycle where we have to start thinking about what can we show for our efforts to the electorate, particularly when this government’s talked so much about rebuilding the economy out of COVID, making the most of Brexit opportunities, leveling up, which is this big kind of project, the cost of living crisis, which was coming through back in the Spring. All of that. The government didn’t really have anything to show and didn’t look like it was going to have anything to show. I think that coupled to Johnson’s just running out of steam is what did it for him.

You know, a bit like David Cameron, once he was there as prime minister, it wasn’t that he had a project for it. It was just that he wanted to be prime minister and the tiresome trouble of actually doing some governing didn’t really interest him.


Now Simon, as we’ve been talking about Boris Johnson’s rise and fall, I can’t, but help think of this concept of nested games that you’ve introduced through this edited volume, The Nested Games of Brexit. But I think of Boris Johnson’s efforts within Brexit, really the way that he’s kind of operated as a prime minister. But even more than that, the way that the politics of who’s going to be the next prime minister have really played out following Boris Johnson’s resignation. I feel like those fall into this concept of nested games. It just jumped out to me. It reminded me of this book that you’ve recently published that’s based on a series of articles. Can you explain what are nested games so we can introduce this concept?

Simon Usherwood

Sure. Basically, the idea is that you can think about political interactions and decisions as a set of games, so that there are some different players, so different people, different organizations, and they will gain or lose different things depending on what the outcome is. And that if you do that, you then theoretically can model what the optimum outcome might be. Listeners will probably have heard of the prisoner’s dilemma. Two prisoners locked up separately. The police offer them the opportunity to rat out on the other one. So, what’s the optimum strategy for them to do?

So, that’s an example of a game, but politics is not that simple. The nested game idea basically says that people or politicians are playing more than one game at a time. That in this context, if we’re thinking about how the Brexit process went, the negotiations between the UK and the EU, there’s a game between the UK and the EU, but also the British players are also playing their own game of domestic politics just as the EU member states are doing their own games. So, things that might make sense in one of these arenas might not make sense in another and more importantly, they might drive suboptimal decisions in the other arena. So, if we assume that national politics is the dominant area, you know that for politicians, their national system is where things that matter happen, other arenas, other games become secondary.

The big problem in the Brexit process was that the British side kept on making decisions that made sense for domestic priorities whether that’s about personal advancements or about parliamentary arithmetic and what might get through or about the domestic needs of the country without thinking about what the impact of those decisions would be in the interactions with the EU. So, then going to the EU and saying, ‘We want to do this or we’ve decided we’re doing this’ and the EU saying, ‘Well, we are not doing that.’ So, in essence, it’s not really about modeling as such that we’ve talked about in this collection. It’s much more about thinking about it as a way of thinking about that connection.

So, in the same way that US politics foregrounds the national, tends to background the international, the same happens in the UK and in pretty much every country. That disconnection between what’s the right thing to do globally and what’s the right thing to do locally is always there. So, for Johnson, the decisions he made were driven arguably more by the game of maintaining and advancing his career personally than they were about what was right for the UK, let alone what’s right for UK-EU relations. So, it’s really thinking about what’s the dog and what’s the tail and who’s wagging who in all of this. And that’s probably, I think, a good place to start with thinking about this kind of model.


Yeah. In politics. They oftentimes refer to people who are playing chess while everybody else is playing checkers. I kind of think of it that way. The way that we throw around terms like political calculus. And I think nested games really starts to ask the question, ‘Are the politicians really not looking at politics as an arithmetic, but really the type of math that they’re doing really is calculus?’

That you’re looking at derivatives rather than just algebra, so that the decisions that they might be making might look like they’re very poor directions to go, that they might be like committing political suicide, but turn out that they’re making very savvy political decisions because they might be working towards a specific base or it might be applying to a certain demographic group or it might be positioning themselves for different type of outcomes for their careers into the future. It’s just a much more complex and nuanced way of thinking about political decisions than oftentimes we do when we just look at public opinion polls.

Simon Usherwood

Well, I think you can think about it even more simply. One of my kind of axioms of thinking about the analysis that I do is that I don’t ever want to be in a position where my working hypothesis is that somebody is stupid. I know that this Axiom has been tested almost to destruction in the last decade on occasions. But I have to assume that somebody who is in a position of authority has enough sense to have gotten into that position of authority and knows what they’re doing. So, I think people don’t do things for stupid reasons. They make decisions that are sensible to themselves and that’s really what you’re saying as well is that if something doesn’t make sense to us, it’s more likely that we haven’t understood what makes sense to them rather than they’ve done something that is nonsensical.

So, again, it’s a very subjective kind of way of approaching things. So, let’s take an example from British politics at the moment. We are just at the end of the new leadership contest. We’ve got the two candidates and the front runner, Liz Truss, is not doing television interviews. So, she’s not doing sit down extended format interviews with anyone. She hasn’t done one at all during the campaign. Now, in national terms, that’s really bad that we’ve got somebody who’s going to be coming into several crises, cost of living, energy prices, Ukraine, Brexit, a whole world of stuff. People want to know about her, particularly because they haven’t been involved in her selection.

So, here’s somebody who’s going to be thrust upon them by a very small electorate as their new prime minister. It’s very bad for her in that context. But it makes complete sense that she is not in a position at the moment to be able to say what she’s going to do about any of these crises, because she’s not had access to all of the materials. She doesn’t know quite how her new government is going to be formed together and quite what the situation’s going to be like when she’s in power. So, why make hostages to fortune, promises that she will regret one way or another? She’s ahead in the polls. She’s probably going to win. So, why rock the boat? She’s done fine without having an interview. Why do an interview and risk it?

So, again, an example of just two different ways of thinking about the same choice and both of them are true understandings. But they’re only partial understandings. We need to think about the motivations that are there in order to make sense of it and I think usually that works very well. There’s usually a good reason in air quotes for why politicians do what they do even if it’s not immediately obvious or what we would’ve done in the same situation.


I think there’s no better example than the difference between how Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss approached Boris Johnson’s eventual resignation where Sunak was one of those members who resigned and eventually brought about Boris Johnson’s resignation. Liz Truss, on the other hand, chose not to resign. I mean, those are very different positions to take. She stood by Boris Johnson up until the end. These are the two candidates that were picked by parliament to be able to go before the conservative voters. Ones that took very diametrically opposed approaches to Boris Johnson. How does nested games explain how Sunak and Truss approached their relationship to Boris Johnson in this final moment of crisis for him?

Simon Usherwood

It’s quite complicated to apply it, because there are a number of different calculations going on. One is what’s necessary to remove Boris Johnson. So, for Sunak to resign made sense, because, as you’re saying, one of the key posts in government, arguably the second most important after the prime minister himself, for him to resign, really made the pressure that much bigger. He was one of the first to go and that opened the gates for many other ministers to do the same. So, in that sense, it’s in order to get to a position, to be able to challenge for the leadership, Sunak’s most valuable weapon was to force that change to come about.

The trade-off is that he now has suffered a lot for that. He’s seen as stabbing Johnson in the back and his disloyalty to Johnson, regardless of what you think of Johnson, is now counted against him by the party. By contrast, for Truss, as somebody who was much more aligned with Johnson’s agenda and politics as much as it existed, and who always saw herself as a kind of continuity Johnson candidate which sounds a bit rude, but we’ll pass on that.

As the continuity candidate, she couldn’t be seen to be disloyal to him in that same way. She came up with this very thin reasoning that because she was foreign secretary, it was essential that she stayed in post, because the country needed her to be there. She said that and then she immediately left a G20 meeting in Indonesia, I think, came back and wasn’t heard of for the rest of the time until Johnson resigned. So, the things we say and the things we do are not the same.

For her building a base required her to stay in, so she could say, ‘Well, I stood by Johnson and I think he did a good job,’ hoping to pick up those people who would be there making a gamble that even though Johnson’s stock was down, he still would be reaching parts that others wouldn’t and that ideally, if he endorsed her, that would be helpful. And he’s done that very indirectly, but effectively. So, for the two of them, they have different positions. One’s thinking about, ‘How do we get Johnson out?’ And the other’s thinking about, ‘Well, how do I get in?’

So, for them, they’re playing it in two different ways. They’re playing two different games. They each seem to have succeeded in those games, but because one game is prior to the other, Sunak now pays the price for winning in that one game when it comes to who goes forward from the two. So, you can start to see here a bit, how choices have consequences and you really have to ride your luck a bit. That’s obviously where Johnson always had a great degree of success. Sometimes you get lucky and that’s fine until your luck runs out and then you are left high and dry.


Yeah and there were a lot of people that put their hat in the ring to become prime minister that didn’t make these final two. It’s remarkable that the two that are left, the two that are remaining for conservative voters to choose between are almost the archetypal person who set off the string of resignations, if you will, Rishi Sunak. I don’t want to say the first, but he was among the first and among the most important. And Liz Truss who’s one of the few not to resign because many, many cabinet members did resign. They didn’t make the same calculation that Liz Truss did. So, it’s interesting because they made very unique decisions. Other people made many different types of calculations and decisions and did want to become prime minister as well. But still didn’t get to the point that these two people made.

Simon Usherwood

Indeed, but remember that Truss has been floating around a leadership bid for a long time. She had this series of receptions with parliamentarians, Fizz with Liz. She did the same with business leaders which I think was called Biz with Liz. I think she ran out of things that rhyme with Liz, but probably of all the candidates she had the most developed leadership challenge set up and was doing a lot of pretty active feeling of the ground. So, as much as we can think of her as a loyalist to Johnson, it was also clear that she knew which way the wind was blowing and she was getting herself well placed.

And that’s what matters when you have these leadership contests, because you can’t control the timing and there’s always a dilemma between getting things together, looking like you are trying to push out your nominal leader, and leaving it so late that everyone else is flying off with their campaigns while you’re still trying to find a desk to put down your laptop and start going. So, I think that balance was quite difficult.

I think Sunak in that sense misjudged that he didn’t really have his campaign together in quite the same kind of way. I think he relied a bit more on what was favorable polling. He seemed to have had a good COVID pandemic mainly because he’d spent a huge amount of public funds on furlough schemes and support. So, he was hoping that that would carry him through and was not really thinking about all the other things that people look for in a leader.


Are nested games something that’s more relevant in parliamentary systems or do you feel like in any kind of democratic system or maybe even any kind of political system that we see them play a very significant role within politics?

Simon Usherwood

I think that it’s a fairly universal kind of thing. It’s not even just politics. Take your organization of choice and you see those kinds of dynamics there. I dare say that if I wanted to, I could apply it to a university setting. For example, what makes sense in your department amongst your faculty colleagues might not make sense in a meeting with the head of the college. So, I always think it’s important to recognize how you engage in political decisions and decision making is not necessarily how other people engage with it at a purely personal level.

You know, we have the same kind of thing when we think about our families and the dynamics that are there. My understanding of my family is not the same as my family members understanding of my family. So, when we come together and we’re trying to do things, how we make decisions requires us to have an appreciation of people being in different places and having priorities that may be more or less overt in all of that.

I think one of the things that has drawn me to this kind of model in this particular case is that a lot of the work I’ve done has been on negotiating. A key part of understanding negotiations is that how you see the world is not how your interlocutor sees the world. The more you can put yourself in their position, the more likely it is that you’ll find some kind of mutually satisfactory outcome rather than just try and browbeat them into submission or alternatively just give them whatever they want.

So, if you want a good kind of agreement that kind of empathizing with your counterparts is a really important part of it. That really is what nested games is talking about. The motivations that we have are multiple and varied and if we can have a sense of that, then, potentially, we open the door to making better, more durable decisions.


So, Simon, at the end of the day, what does this scenario, the whole scenario from Boris Johnson’s resignation to the contest between Sunak and Truss, what does all of this really teach us about democracy?

Simon Usherwood

All of this really highlights that democracy is really difficult. One of the reasons why British voters decided to vote to leave the EU was this slogan that I’ve mentioned already of taking back control. This was presented like a political version of those adverts you see on the internet. This one weird trick and you’ll lose 60 pounds. If you just vote this way, things will be better. So, all of this really highlights that that’s not how democracy works. Just like weight loss doesn’t work through one weird trick. Politics requires complex and ongoing engagement by all of us. There are lots of elements that hang together. The Brexit process has really highlighted that whatever we decide to do that has knock-on consequences and those knock-on consequences have knock-on consequences of their own which might come back and affect our original decision.

Everything is connected and we are never going to have something that’s going to make everybody happy. The thing I fear is that the kind of the populist turn in politics, which says there are simple solutions to complicated problems, speaks to the spirit of the age. That you can pick up your phone, tap an app, do a couple of things and then a guy walks up a couple of hours later with the thing you want in a box to your doorstep, free delivery. That’s not the way politics works. Politics requires us to deal with each other, to listen to each other, and appreciate and understand what we all want and what we’re trying to do.

And then it requires us to find solutions that are going to work as well as possible and inevitably that means some people have to accept some compromises. Some things that they don’t like. But it requires all of us to work to a system where we can all feel that we have a say so the decisions we reach are legitimate and are durable. Process really matters here. I think that’s the other thing is that it’s not just about good outcomes. It’s about good processes. And I think in the US as much as in the UK, we’ve seen that in the recent years that if you question the process, you open up a huge problem for the viability of the system.

If people don’t feel that it’s a decision reached in the right way, quite apart from whether it’s the right decision, then the legitimacy and the authority of public institutions is severely compromised. So, democracy’s big weaknesses is that it requires participation. A vote on a decision about withdrawing from the EU, for example, is not enough to sort Brexit out. It requires all of us to be involved in lots of different aspects of that process and to continue to be interested and bothered. Because if we don’t make decisions for ourselves, then other people will make decisions for us and inevitably those decisions that other people make are not going to be as satisfactory as the ones we would make for ourselves.

So, I think all of those things are big questions. But for me, that’s really what’s been brought home by this whole process. Democracy is the ultimate positive vibe. You know, who doesn’t like democracy? But democracy itself is contested in what it contains and how it works. So, at the root of it, it’s about participation. It’s about recognizing that whatever we do, somebody’s not going be happy and we’ve got to work to try and help them be happy again in a way that doesn’t compromise the decisions that we’ve already taken.


Well, Simon, thank you so much for joining me. It feels like a very complicated process that is undergoing in the United Kingdom right now. But thank you for helping us make sense of it. Again, those of you who want to actually read the book that we reference, it’s The Nested Games of Brexit. Thank you very much for joining me, Simon.

Simon Usherwood

Thank you so much, Justin. It’s been really good to have the opportunity to discuss at length and I hope that the listeners find it useful.

Key Links

European Union: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) by John Pindar and Simon Usherwood

Learn more about Simon Usherwood

Follow Simon Usherwood on Twitter @Usherwood

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