Putin, the old cliché goes, views the international world order as a game of chess where pawns, knights, bishops and queens are played off one against the other until there is only one outright winner: Russia. Putin’s strategy is to align both his and his opponent’s pawns (the mob) with the bishops and knights (the snob) to weaken and topple his rival. His tactic has been to whip his adversary’s pawns into a state of fury through the spread of misinformation, defamation and slander thereby undermining his adversary’s legitimacy and authority. On the face of it both his strategy and his tactic appear to be working. Across the European Union we see the rise of extremism, the victory of populists in democratic elections and the phenomenal rise of an out-raged right-wing media slamming the European project as a wicked “cabal of high-priests”.
Putin has every right to feel smug. He is within a cat’s whisker of being able to cry “check mate!” to Barak Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Jean Claude Juncker – all those smug liberals who imposed sanctions on him in 2014 after he invaded the Crimea. Nowhere has Putin’s strategy of spreading vitriol in Europe been more successful than in the United Kingdom – one of the more formidable of his opponents. How satisfied must the President-for-life be to see the once great bastion of representative democracy suffering from the effects of a particularly virulent strain of populism à la Putin. The Mother of all Parliaments is in a constitutional melt-down, a once strong economy is on the verge of toppling and her long-held reputation for stability, order and certainty floundering. One by one this chess player is knocking his opponent’s knights, bishops and castles off the chequered board clearing the way for his ultimate objective: a permanently weak and divided western Europe governed by fractious nation states.
Before Mr Putin cries ‘check mate’ he may, however, want to remember one thing: we in Britain have a long tradition of playing contract bridge and bridge is every bit as strategic and exciting to play as chess.
Fortunes can be won or lost on an overly confident or overly timid bid. The iconic star of the 1960’s, Omar Sherif, relished the chance to play bridge in some of the world’s most glamorous casinos partnering with royalty, statesmen and Hollywood celebrities.
Bridge, like chess, requires strategy and clever tactics but it also requires guess-work, intelligence and a fundamental understanding of the rules. Much of bridge, (unlike chess where both opponents begin with equal opportunities) is down to the luck of the draw – but crucially and significantly those dealt the weaker hand can still topple those with the strongest suit and the highest points.
Few play bridge these days. I rarely do but with a grandmother and mother crazy about playing bridge when I was growing up it was impossible not to learn a trick or two on how to win. As I look at the Brexit mess unfolding before my eyes I hear the voice of my Grandmother, Hilary Kathleen Garnett née Fawcett, echoing down the decades reminding the fourteen-year-old me ‘Kathleen, never forget many a banker is hanging under a London bridge tonight because he failed to count his trumps!’ Those playing bridge for high-stakes – and let’s face it Brexit is a high-stakes game – should never forget this wise and essential instruction: Always count your trumps.
A crucial lesson the imperious Theresa May and her right-wing courtiers from the European Research Group appear to have forgotten. Their flimsy referendum victory has clearly gone to their head and given them ideas above their abilities. Since 24 June 2016 they have been sauntering along the corridors of Westminster believing they could treat the mother of all Parliaments to an autocratic, imperial game of chess forgetting that Westminster beats to the rhythm of contract bridge. This mistake is going to cost them dearly.
Let’s Play Brexit Bridge!
The opening scene: Chequers 2016.
Four bridge players sit around a green-baized card table; the one used by Winston Churchill during the second world-war. Theresa May, the newly appointed Prime Minister, sits opposite her partner, leader of the right-wing ERG, Jacob Rees-Mogg. To the left of the Prime Minister sits Dominic Grieve, a moderate who is partnered with Lord Adonis, a remainer sitting to the Prime Minister’s right.
There is a strong, as yet unproven suspicion, that Vote Leave cheated and stacked the cards in the Prime Ministers favour. She is dealt the best hand with the highest points. She opens her bid with her longest and strongest suits: spades. Dominic Grieve and Lord Adonis have very weak hands, and both say, ‘no bid’. The bidding finishes on ‘four spades. The terms of the contract are now agreed: spades will trump all other suits (diamonds, hearts and club) and Theresa May promises her partner, Jacob Rees-Mogg ten out of the thirteen games needed to deliver Brexit. He accepts and lays his cards on the table for his ‘dutiful’ Prime Minister to play. From now on Rees-Mogg will take a back-seat, behind the scenes role leaving the Prime Minister to win the games for both of them. Across the table he watches her every move with cool concentration. Any mishap and she’s toast.
In Theresa May’s hand we find:
- The Ace of Spades (4 points): Jeremy Corbyn – a Brexit-loving leader of the opposition whose dislike and suspicion of the EU align with those of May’s partner, the ERG. His Labour members do not know this and believe he is the saviour of austerity.
- The King of Spades (3 points): The support of a rabid right-wing media.
- The Queen of Spades (2 points): A shell-shocked House of Commons.
- The Ace of Clubs (4 points). The EU as a scape-goat for her own failures.
- The King of Clubs (3 points). A supportive BBC.
In total Theresa May had 16 points. A very strong hand in bridge.
Dominic Grieve and Lord Adonis are dealt
- The Ace of Hearts. (4 our points) Winning the Gina Miller Case
- The King of Hearts. (3 points) Support for a People’s Vote.
- A singleton, the Jack of Clubs. (1 point)
- Eight low-figure spades. (No points)
In total they have 8 points to Theresa May’s 16.
With skill the moderates and remainers might be able to win one or two of the thirteen games but if the Prime Minister plays her hand carefully there is every chance she can deliver on what she promised her partner: Brexit.
Scene 2: The action moves to Downing Street and Westminster: August 2016 – December 2018
May begins by playing her highest trump the Ace of Spades.
Jeremy Corbyn obligingly and willingly whips his party into triggering Article 50 and later her EU Withdrawal Bill. As an added bonus Corbyn gifts her Labour’s useless six-point plan on Brexit that not a single voter in the UK understands or cares about. She faces no serious opposition in Westminster. Four trumps drawn.
She wins the next round by laying down her King of Spades.
The rabid right-wing media who, as promised, come to her aid even when she quite frankly looks like a 100% failure on the world stage.
They scream “Enemies of the People” at impartial judges who dare to challenge her royal prerogative,
they urge May to crush who dare to question her strategy,
they accuse remain MPs of being unpatriotic who should be silenced.
They applaud her “Citizens of Nowhere” speech and portray her as a woman of “Steel”.
Even when she carelessly loses her majority in Parliament and is forced into an unsavoury deal with the DUP they continue to portray her as “Strong and Stable”.
The Prime Minister takes a relaxed approach to the culture of fear and hate that her King of Spades is fermenting. Four trumps drawn.
May then over-plays her hand.
She lays down the Queen of Hearts trying to win Royal Prerogative to negotiate Brexit thereby side-stepping the legislature all together and leaving Brexit in the hands of the executive. It’s a rooky mistake since she does not have the Ace or the King of Heart. Gina Millar, a Remainer, successfully challenges the executive’s exclusive right to negotiate Brexit in the Supreme Court and wins for Dominic Grieve the chance to play his Ace of Hearts: Theresa May must bring whatever deal she negotiates with the EU back to the House of Commons for a meaningful vote.
Having control of the game Grieve and Adonis play their next high card, the King of Hearts. Lord Adonis plays his “People’s Vote” card. There is growing momentum for a second referendum and the pro-EU marches in London draw ever bigger crowds. Celebrities such as Gary Lineker, Kiera Knightly, Stephen Fry, Deborah Meaden and Delia Smith begin to support a People’s Vote. Remainers can confidently show that as more and more Leave voters fall off the electoral register through death younger, pro-EU voters are coming onto the electoral register. The polls are slowly but surely shifting in favour of Remain. Both losses are a set-back for May but not a game-changer. She still has plenty of high trumps to play and neither Grieve nor Adonis have control of the legislature. She does.
To win her next trick, she lays down the Queen of Spades…
….threatening the House of Commons with the “will of the people” and “democracy must be respected” card. The Queen of Spades relies on the press to help spread unsavoury messages about any MP looking to maintain Britain’s tradition of representative democracy.
It is a powerful trump helping Members of Parliament forget that the House of Commons had voted on an advisory not a binding referendum and that the British constitution since the time of Edmund Burke is founded on a representative democracy not direct democracy. Four trumps drawn. Theresa May is on a roller-coaster ride of winning every round (bar two) so she continues her strategy of playing her highest cards.
She places the Ace of Clubs on the table,
pointing the finger of blame for her own ineptitude at the ‘bullying’ EU. It works a treat. Most voters believe the EU is culpable and is engaging in “bad-faith” negotiations with Theresa May.
National support for leaving remains unchanged and hovers at the 50% mark. Lord Adonis plays his Jack of Clubs knowing he’ll lose this game, but the singleton has been played. Jolyon Maugham and six Scottish MPs bring a case to the European Court of Justice who rule that the UK can extend Article 50 or revoke Article 50.
Next, May plays King of Clubs
getting a highly sympathetic and supportive BBC on side.
Ever since Lord Hall decided to take the editorial line that Brexit was going to happen the BBC has conveniently, for Theresa May, erased any talk of remaining in the EU as an option from news bulletins and programmes. The BBC’s star presenters such as Andrew Neil, Nick Robinson, Andrew Marr, John Humphries, Martha Carney and Ewan Davies discuss how the UK will leave the EU not if Britain will leave the EU. The pro-EU marches are given limited air-time and passionate remainers such as Lord Adonis, Jolyon Maugham and Alistair Campbell are rarely, if ever, invited on the BBC for comment. On the much listened to and watched Today programme, Newsnight, PM, Marr on Sunday etc leavers debate amongst leavers helping to give Brexit a tarnish of respectability. The convincing and obvious option of remaining in the EU is conveniently erased from the nation’s largest media organisation and thus from the nation’s mind.
By December 2018 Theresa May has won nine of her ten games, Grieve and Adonis three. She has negotiated her Withdrawal Agreement with the EU and is poised to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 in line with the Article 50 procedure. There is only one game left that May must now win to deliver Brexit.
Scene 3: Chequers December 2018
We are back at the card table in Chequers. Twelve games played – only one to go. May has one last high card in her hands, the Ace of Diamond and the right to control the legislative agenda.
May cannot see what cards Grieve and Adonis hold but is confident they cannot beat her Ace of Diamonds. Lord Adonis, an unelected peer, holds the five of diamonds. He is not a threat to her Ace, but she is suspicious of what Grieve, a Conservative MP and former Attorney General, holds up his sleeve. The Queen of Diamonds gifts her the right to set the legislative time-table and with the deadline looming this can allow her to play delaying tactics. She is suspicious of Grieve but cannot see how he can defeat her Ace of Diamonds.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who until now has supported her every move, begins to stare coldly at her from across the table. May senses a drop in the temperature regardless of the roaring fire behind her. In 2016 she promised to be his ‘dutiful’ Prime Minister. She cannot understand why her partner is beginning to lose faith?
Scene 4: Downing Street and Westminster January to March 2019
May made a fatal flaw in August 2016. She completely miscalculated her partner. She believed she had entered into a game of contract bridge with a rational partner. Instead the Prime Minister had entered into an agreement with an unreliable idealist chasing unicorns. She notices, belatedly, his idealism shrouds his judgement and – against all the rules of contract bridge – he tries to wrest control from her so that he and the ERG can play her final trick and oust her. This is against the rules of bridge.
May and Rees-Mogg enter into a bitter death dance. Like spiders trapped at the bottom of an enamel bowel where neither can escape they eye each other up, both determined to deliver a Brexit on their terms. As they abandon the rules of bridge, bridge begins to abandon them, and the power of their trumps begin to weaken. The House of Commons becomes less meek and begins to assert its authority. Moderate MPs from both the Conservative Party and Labour abandon their whips and form an independent group. A conservative MP wrenches control from the executive and gives it back to the legislature. The right-wing media becomes confused no longer knowing who to support, May or Rees-Mogg? The EU begins to look less bullying and more sensible the longer the stand-off between May and Rees-Mogg continues. Even Jeremy Corbyn is beginning to talk about a public vote.
As the power of her trumps begin to fade May begins to act erratically and alienates further the very people she should be wooing to pass her deal – Members of Parliament. The electorate are looking on in horror realising, perhaps for the first time, that their Prime Minister is not as capable or as intelligent as they had originally believed her to be and her ratings drop dramatically. Realising too late that he should have stuck to the rules of the game Rees-Mogg back-tracks and promises to support his partner’s Withdrawal Agreement – but it is too late. He’s broken the rules of contract bridge and contract bridge is beginning to break Brexit.
Scene 5: Westminster April 2019. The end of Brexit?
Whilst the drama plays out on twitter Grieve sits patiently waiting for the inevitable end to this dramatic game of Brexit bridge. May and Rees-Mogg frantically try to delay the inevitable. They desperately try and get the DUP on side. They try for a third and final time to bring her Withdrawal Agreement for another vote. They print jingoistic pieces in The Telegraph and Daily Mail to rouse the mob – but their tactics are less effective then they once were. They have weakened what trumps they were given by arrogantly believing they could bend the rules of bridge. It is only now as we enter the end game of Brexit that both May and Rees-Mogg realise they have not counted all their trumps and that Grieve still holds the two of trumps in his hand:
either Revoke Article 50 or endorse a People’s Vote with remain an option.
May only pulled twelve of the thirteen trump and has now lost her last trick: control of the legislature and control of the time-table. That’s the beauty of bridge. Even the under-dog can win if those with the winning hand do not pay attention. Regardless of the mess we now find ourselves it looks increasingly likely that having her Queen of Diamonds trumped by a two of spades the legislature is going to either vote for a Peoples Vote with an option to remain or to revoke Article 50.
Had Rees-Mogg been a clever bridge player he could have, should have and would have supported Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement right from the very beginning but Jacob Rees-Mogg (regardless of his phoney Englishness) clearly does not know how to play bridge. He’s not a clever man like Dominic Grieve, a trained QC with an understanding of the rules, nor is he a strategic thinker like Lord Adonis. Both he and Theresa May were dealt an excellent hand in 2016. Brexit was theirs for the taking but both blew it out of sheer arrogance. Their failure to draw out the remaining trump early on in the game resulted in Brexit’s inevitable end. Even the ERG is finished. Their irrational, holier-than-thou, purist approach to Brexit is beginning to back-fire on them spectacularly. They are no longer viewed by their former supporters as the embodiment of English identity but for what they have always been: rats in a sack putting personal ambition above country.
It is at this point that I am reminded of Grandma’s advice from all those years ago – if you want to play high-stakes bridge count your trumps! How I imagine Hilary Garnett scoffing at both Theresa May and Rees-Mogg from beyond the grave. ‘Call yourself British Statesmen!’ I hear her cry ‘Only twelve of the spades have been played you fools when there are thirteen in a pack!’ An Ace is useless in the face of a trump.