Why Brian Cox Probably Won't Be the British Emmanuel Macron

It's the ultimate centrist wet dream. Britain, bogged down with Brexit, polarized in its politics, saddled with a tired government and a divided opposition, is suddenly reawakened by a savior.

Bearing in one hand the trusty sword of reason and in the other the sturdy shield of bispartisanship, this British Emmanuel Macron rises without warning to the premiership, stops Brexit, forms a cabinet of "sensible" voices from left and right, and leads us to a liberal future.

The power of the idea among a certain kind of metropolitan politico explains a rash of new centrist parties that have been proposed in recent months with names including "The Radicals" and "Renew." But now the highest-profile figure yet wants in.

Professor Brian Cox, the TV scientist, told Chris Evans's show on BBC Radio 2 (half-jokingly, it has to be said) on Tuesday (28 November): "I should just try and be Prime Minister, bring a bit of common sense... you can look across all parties and you think it'd be great if a scientist were just having a bit of clarity of thought, you know? Wouldn't it?" One listener suggested his movement could be called "The Rational Front."

Joke or not, there's plenty of people who'd love this idea and, I'd bet, plenty of celebrities hatching similar plans at Soho House breakfast meetings right now. But here's why putting your hope in Cox might not be such a good idea.

Sorry, Mr President

In France in May, Emmanuel Macron, who had experience as a minister but was still a relative political novice, shot straight to the top when he took his country's presidency. At the other end of the political spectrum, you may dimly remember that a real estate boss and reality TV star recently attained some political success in America despite his lack of experience.

But in the U.K. where we don't have a presidential system, it's just not possible to leap to the top of the tree in this way. The point of the President, especially in France but to some extent in America, is to be a little above the political fray. In Britain, you don't get to the top without battling your way through the fray for years, and even when you've arrived you still need a complex web of allies and supporters to keep you there.

Brian Cox Prince Charles
Prince Charles and Brian Cox applaud during the Prince's Trust Celebrate Success Awards at the Odeon Leicester Square, in central London March 23, 2011 Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Rigging the system

The U.K.'s first past the post electoral system makes it incredibly hard for new parties to get off the ground (indeed, the stability that theoretically provides is why its champions like it), because just building up support in terms of vote share doesn't work—you need to fight constituency by constituency to win seats, which can be difficult without a big budget or established campaigning machine.

Plus, anyone starting a pro-EU, liberal party will particularly struggle on this front in today's Britain. Many of the voters they might attract are concentrated in a few places such as large cities or university towns. According to analysis from the political scientist Chris Hanretty, though the referendum result was close overall, when you map it onto Westminster constituencies, 421 out of 574 English and Welsh seats probably voted to leave.

The thought police

In one way or another, most advocates of a new centrist party make the same basic political calculation: if only, they say, we could rise above the squabbling and tribalism of conventional politics, and assess our problems using only reason and evidence. Cox seems to think the same.

But appeals to reason don't always work. As the Emory University Psychology Professor Drew Westen wrote in a Huffington Post blog in 2011: "I also led a team of neuroscientists who studied how partisan brains reasoned during the polarized 2004 [U.S.] election. The answer: they didn't."

Politicians, who in many cases tend to be fairly smart, thoughtful people, don't just use appeals to emotion and flowery rhetoric for fun. They do it because that's what works.

Excuse me, you're in our seat...

Lastly, there's the bright orange elephant in the room: the Liberal Democrats. They may not be the electoral force they were at the height of the Blair years, when opposition to the Iraq war made them an all-consuming sponge for protest voters. But they're still out there, fighting seats and, in some cases, even winning them.

Any new centrist party founder needs a detailed answer to two questions: first, how will they take all or most of the Lib Dems' votes. And second, why should a new pro-EU, socially liberal, economically centrist party be more popular than the one we already have?