May takes things to the brink as she plays a dangerous game

Teresa May

British Prime Minister May’s tactic of running down the parliamentary clock until the only viable alternative to a no-deal hard Brexit is passing her Withdrawal Agreement has been widely described as political brinksmanship.

It is being called a lot of other things too, some of which I could agree with, but for the purposes of this column, I will stick with this more polite label.

Much to my surprise, though the strategy it describes goes back many hundreds, if not thousands of years, including to Pericles whose miscalculated brinksmanship led to the Peloponnesian War and the fall of Athens, the word itself only dates to the 1950s.

It was coined by the US democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson to mock the Cold War posturing of the Republican hardline Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. Dulles had famously said: “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art… if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”

In his seminal work on game theory and brinksmanship, The Strategy of Conflict, Nobel Laureate Prof Thomas Schelling, described it simply as follows: “If I say ‘row, or I’ll tip the boat over and drown us both,’ you’ll say you don’t believe me. But if I rock the boat so that it may tip over, you’ll be more impressed”. In a nutshell, it’s a big game of chicken that is based on complete and total mistrust.

But, as Dulles says, the necessary art of the gameplay is getting to the verge without tipping over. Even though brinksmanship involves a great deal of acting irrationally, there needs to be a streak of rationality underpinning it.

You want your opponent to really believe that you are perfectly willing to take you both over the edge of the cliff or into the water, but what if there are other players in the game? What if there are more than two actors in the scenario?

It this an aspect of Brexit brinksmanship that Prime Minister May has included in her calculations; or could it be that what others are interpreting as brinksmanship is nothing other than stubbornness and a resolute refusal to accept some harsh realities?

Over the past few weeks, we have seen several big third-party players make significant announcements which should bring home the real and present dangers of tipping over the no-deal verge:

• Sony moving its European HQ from the UK to the Netherlands;

• Ford warning that it faces an $800m bill this year from additional Brexit-related costs;

• Jaguar/Land Rover announcing that it will suspend production in all UK plants for two and a half weeks during April;

• Airbus, which employs more than 14,000 people in the United Kingdom with 110,000 more jobs connected in supply chains, saying that a no-deal Brexit could force it to make “potentially very harmful decisions” about its range of British operations.

Not to mention the extraordinary news that the big supporter of Brexit, Sir James Dyson, is moving his company HQ from the UK to Singapore.

I am sure it is just a coincidence that Singapore has a free trade deal with the EU, something that the UK will no longer enjoy if it crashes out of the EU with a no-deal Brexit.

Defending the decision, Dyson executives said the move to Singapore had nothing to do with Brexit and was made to enable them to be closer to their markets in Asia.

The irony that Dyson backed Brexit to take the United Kingdom out of the massive free trade market on its doorstep seems entirely lost on them. Sucks hard, doesn’t it?

It is possible, indeed desirable, that these announcements may bring some of the Westminster MPs to their senses and move, at the very least, to rule out a no-deal Brexit, perhaps via Yvette Cooper’s anti no-deal amendment?

Given the size of the vote against May’s deal last time, it is difficult to see MPs shifting back to her in sufficient numbers to get her deal through next week, but for now avoiding a no-deal Brexit and keeping the Brexit transition period in place is progress.

Even the most adept of brinksmen have their limits.

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