Even your best poker face won’t be enough for success, Mrs May

Michel Barnier

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator for Brexit, prepares to face Britain’s representatives in talks on a deal
Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

One way of looking at the Brexit negotiation is as a game of high stakes poker. Theresa “Queen of Vegas” May and her sidekick, David “Old Knuckleduster” Davis will sit on one side of a green baize table. They will arrange their faces to be utterly inscrutable; they will stitch cards to chests; they will leave Boris at home for fear that he might accidentally blurt out the content of Britain’s hand. Across from them will sit Michel “Hardball” Barnier, the chief negotiator for the commission, and Donald “Goodbye” Tusk, representing the 27 countries who will be remaining within the EU once Britain has taken its leave.

Negotiation as a game of bluff is a concept popular with a lot of the Brexiters, especially those of them deluded enough to think that Mrs May holds a fistful of aces and that the EU is a fish. That they like it so much is a warning to the rest of us that the poker metaphor is a dangerously misleading way of viewing the challenge of extricating Britain from the EU in a way which minimises the pain of the procedure. Poker is a game designed to produce just the one winner. A single player scoops the pot; the others lose their shirts. That explains the popularity of the poker metaphor among those Brexiters who are incapable of seeing our relationship with Europe as anything other than a contest in which Britain can only prosper by making other European countries lose and they can only gain if it is at our expense. If Mrs May enters this negotiation in that spirit, she will never get to an agreement.

The talks may fail anyway. There are Brextremists on this side of the Channel who are willing the negotiation to fail because for them the only good deal with the EU is no deal. There are some players on the other side of the Channel who yearn for the negotiation to fail because they want the penalty for desertion to be so incredibly painful that no other EU state will ever contemplate following Britain towards the exit. The hope for some sort of success from the negotiations – or at least an outcome that mitigates the damage – rests with the more reasonable people on both sides. But the talks will still collapse if the bargaining is conducted as a zero-sum game. There will be an agreement only if everyone leaves the table feeling reasonably satisfied. At the very least, all the actors – and Mrs May must always remember that there are 27 other countries involved here – will need a deal that is sellable to their own parliaments and electorates.

There have been times during the nine-month prelude to the negotiations when the prime minister has shown alarming tendencies to approach her task as though it really were as simple as poker. She has talked vacuous guff about getting “a red, white and blue Brexit”, language which fosters the illusion that the process will be all take for Britain and all give by the EU 27. By exciting unrealisable expectations, she has made it harder for herself to make the compromises that will be necessary if she wants to secure an agreement and tougher to sell those compromises to her own MPs and to voters. Some of her ministers have even referred to the EU 27 citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in EU states as “bargaining units”, as if millions of human beings were no more than chips in a casino.

Mrs May and those who advise her seem to be realising that this must now change if she is to have a hope of success. Perhaps they have absorbed Sir John Major’s advice that “a little more charm and a lot less cheap rhetoric” are required. There was a generally constructive tone to the prime minister’s six-page letter to Brussels formally notifying the EU that Britain is initiating the process of separation. She dropped the blustery threat to flounce out if Britain doesn’t get everything that the prime minister has demanded. She wished the European Union a happy future even as she told them the UK wouldn’t be part of it.


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