Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Showing the cards


The UK government thinks it’s playing poker with the EU. And it thinks it’s particularly good at it. “We can’t show our cards” is their standard argument for why they refuse to formulate a coherent negotiating position. Most recently, it was the argument for why Brexit minister David Davies couldn’t share with Parliament the voluminous economic impact assessments that were guiding the Brexit planning, though when threatened with citation for contempt of Parliament he admitted that they didn’t exist. (Has any schoolchild ever tried that? “I did my homework, but it would be unwise for me to show my cards right now by letting you see it.”)

Two important points:

  1. If you publicly announce that your position would be fatally undermined were the other side to see your cards, then that fatally undermines your position. If you secretly have strong cards, then the only thing you could be afraid of would be that the other side will concede too quickly. Which, I feel comfortable asserting, does not seem to be a significant problem for Britain in these negotiations.
  2. There are no hidden cards in this game. Or, at least, very few. If we are going to persist in the poker analogy, the game is five-card stud, so four of the five cards are face up. And Britain has a 2, 3, 7, 9 (of different suits). And they’re betting big, despite the fact that all 27 other players at the table already know that their cards are shit. But they have a brilliant secret strategy, consisting entirely of keeping their brilliant strategy secret. And pretending that they don’t know that their cards are shit.

Comments on: "Showing the cards" (2)

  1. Blissex said:

    The perhaps intentional naiveity of this post is heart-warming: the UK government, and especially the civil service, must be really quite aware of what the “negotiations” with the EU27 representatives involve, and that they are “on rails”: once the customs union and the EEA were ruled out (for domestic political purposes) the endgame can only be one of two, as M Barnier has been explaining for a while.

    The position of the UK government is entirely “compatible” with the hypothesis that they are “playing poker” with the Conservative party voters, not with the EU. My impression is that 100% of their expostulations are purely for domestic electoral purposes, playing to the gallery of the millions of kipper voters who support the Conservative party.

    BTW I suspect that up to the Lancaster House speech the Conservative leaders still thought that they had a slim chance of getting a “have your cake and eat it” deal that would then lead to the disgregation of the EU, which they now see as a geopolitical enemy, and they loaded that speech with threats and blackmail to put pressure on the EU27.
    That was probably the most catastrophic mistake of foreign policy made by an english government in the past many decades, because it offended deeply the pride and interests of the french elites, as reflected in some recent interview with M Barnier, who used to be french foreign minister (and a gaullist…).
    In the Florence speech that threats and blackmail were abjured, but the damage was done.

    • I wouldn’t say I was intentionally naive, and I don’t think the hard-boiled cynicism expressed here really makes sense, even on its own terms. The poker rhetoric is being directed at the Conservative voters and leave-voters everywhere, clearly suggesting that they are playing a hand against the EU. To the hardcore supporters the message is being communicated, don’t despair, and don’t support the demands that we provide clarity, because the people issuing those demands are just traitorous remoaners.

      Of course, you’re right that the bluff is really being directed at exactly those supporters. But that’s not the rhetorical claim. Otherwise, though, I see nothing to disagree with in this comment.

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