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.

Trumping the Tories

One of the great innovations of the Donald Trump presidential campaign has been its exaltation of the element of surprise. My interpretation is that it started as a clever bluff for any detailed questions about plans for his presidency, of which he has none, in the sense that we would ordinarily understand that concept, but evolved into an ideology. It’s not just his war plans that he’s playing close to the chest. His immigration plans, his economic plans, even his decision to contest the election or not, are supposed to be “surprises”, and he mocks those so foolish as to reveal their secret plans.

(The idea that you might have allies who ought to coordinate their actions with yours, or other governing bodies that have a constitutional right to be consulted and informed, is beyond his worldview.)

This is all in keeping with Trump’s world-view, in which statesmanship is just a real estate swindle negotiation writ large. What is more surprising is that the generally more sensible British Tories have adopted a similar approach to Brexit negotiations:

The international development secretary, who was a prominent leave campaigner and is said to be among the ministers on Theresa May’s Brexit committee, said a debate in the House of Commons over the terms of UK’s departure would give the game away to Brussels.

“If I were to sit down and play poker with you this morning, I’m not going to show you my cards before we even start playing the game,” she told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.

Her comments came in the wake of an attempt by a powerful cross-party group of MPs to force a parliamentary vote on whether the government should reveal its plans for the UK’s future outside the EU before negotiations begin…


Of course, you might be inclined to say that the UK’s exit from the EU is a serious constitutional matter, not a poker game. But then, that would just mean you don’t understand the mentality of British politics.