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From eating cake to crashing out: constructing the myth of a no-deal Brexit


This article traces the emergence and development of claims that the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union delivered a mandate for a so-called no-deal Brexit. Utilising Lacanian ideas about group mobilisation combined with a detailed content analysis and evidence drawn from polling data, it shows that this no deal narrative should be viewed as a discursive project that was constructed by a section of Leave campaigners relatively late into the Brexit process amidst growing disillusionment with the direction that negotiations with the EU were taking. By emphasising the role of Brexit as an ‘empty signifier’, the article shows that Brexit was initially successful in mobilising and uniting a disparate, but often unconnected, range of discontent to its cause. However, over time the complexities of the Brexit process triggered a discursive ‘war of position’ as competing visions of Brexit attempted to vie for dominance amongst the Leave camp. It is within this context that the myth of no deal emerged as an attempt by an elite group of actors to re-mobilise support for their cause.

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Source: Hansard online

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Source: Google Trends

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  1. At the time of writing it remains to be seen whether the government’s commitment to this deal (which has yet to receive its third reading in the House of Commons) is genuine or whether the agreement is merely a political ruse to achieve a no deal outcome at the end of a twelve-month transition period, by which time the Conservatives will no doubt hope to be in a stronger political position.

  2. See

  3. See Opinium, June 2016; Survation, October 2016; YouGov, July 2016.; Orb, July 2016; YouGov, July–October 2016; ComRes, December 2016, Table 5

  4. To deal with these ambiguities, the scoring method used for this study took (in cases where polls featured multiple questions on the theme) the question and the answer that was closest to a no deal scenario. Where the question of support for no deal was not explicitly put (especially during the first few months after the referendum) the measure of support was taken from the question that came closest to the conditions for a no deal exit (e.g. prioritising control of immigration over access to the single market). The full list of opinion polls used in this dataset is available at:

  5. YouGov, November 2016; Opinium, December 2016; YouGov, January 2017

  6. See

  7. See Opinium, June 2017; Lord Ashcroft, October 2017; Opinium, March 2018

  8. Hanbury, August 2018.; BMG, September 2018


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Kettell, S., Kerr, P. From eating cake to crashing out: constructing the myth of a no-deal Brexit. Comp Eur Polit 18, 590–608 (2020).

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