“For a lot of people, what they see of the game is what they hear of the game”. It would not be a surprise to find this line embedded within a script of House of Cards and the shadowy, sly machinations of Frank Underwood as he mendaciously plots his way to power. However, the origin of the quote is rather closer to home, the words of the British Prime Minister Theresa May, and perhaps said with far more innocence, whilst being interviewed on the BBC’s illustrious cricket programme, Test Match Special.
It is therefore perhaps unjust to link this with an ‘Underwoodian’ sentiment but one should not dismiss the metaphorical pertinence and relevance of the statement, especially in relation to the recent political instability that has been experienced in 2017. Whilst politics is not a ‘game’ per se – indeed, it would be callous to reduce such a complex and serious field to a simplistic level akin to a sporting fixture – the discipline should not be unshackled from the metaphor entirely. And, in this sense, it can convincingly be argued that the political ‘game’ is interpreted through what we hear from politicians who have the power to control the level of ‘visibility’ that we are exposed to, not least the Brexit negotiations which serve to embody Mrs May’s remark quite pertinently.
On March 29th, the Prime Minister decided to trigger Article 50 and thus began the ticking two-year countdown which will culminate in the UK leaving the European Union in 2019. At least, that is the plan.
In any negotiation, there is value in concealing your position to a certain degree – it is part of the ‘game’ and serves as a means to maximize the rewards that can be reaped. It was, therefore, initially understandable why the government wanted to keep their cards close to their chest – David Davis, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, was apparently so cautious that he felt even having paper on the table would expose some of the details of the UK’s plan.
Although it is somewhat impish to suggest Mr Davis looks less like a negotiator and more like an interviewee in this picture, the photograph appears to hold some relevance as it is now September and, whilst all is not completely quiet on the Western front in Belgium, it is quieter than we might expect for such momentous discussions. Six months have passed since Article 50 was triggered and yet we are still unsure as to what the government’s position actually is and this absence of clarity over a strategy or plan is increasingly troubling.
The question must now be asked as to what would happen if the government opened up about their strategy and stance towards Brexit. There have been repeated talk of Hard/Soft Brexit or Red, White and Blue Brexit – but surface commentary provides little reassurance to a public who remain deeply divided over the outcome of the referendum last June.
In a keynote speech at Lancaster House on 17th January, Mrs May outlined her Plan for Britain – reiterating her desire for her government to create a “Global Britain”. However, more notable was her comment that the government would “provide as much certainty and clarity as [they] can at every stage” of the negotiations. This did come with the proviso that the negotiations were “not a game” with “every hyped-up media report [only making] it harder for us to get the right deal” and to reveal more would “not be in the national interest”.
In January, this statement could perhaps be accepted – after all, Article 50 had not even been triggered. Yet it could now be argued that, for such an important, generation-defining negotiation, it is equally not in the national interest to shroud every detail in a cloak of ambiguity. Whilst Mrs May was correct in stating that it was “not [her] job to fill column inches with daily updates, but to get the right deal for Britain”, vague obscurity is unhelpful for the public, the economy and for Mrs May herself as she tries to overcome domestic instabilities and even apparent divisions within her own party.
Whilst it is a relief that “Brexit means Brexit” appears to have been consigned to a cupboard of overused political statements (at least, one would hope so), it has instead been replaced by the assertion that the government has “one focus: to achieve the best possible deal for the United Kingdom in leaving the European Union” – a statement that is perhaps self-evident yet is repeated with a rigorous repetitiveness that rivals its predecessor. Unfortunately, it seems that a broken record has been replaced by a single-song playlist on shuffle.
Even the apparent reassurances have not been all that promising. Whilst David Davis emphasized in the House of Commons that “concrete progress” has been made, he also stated that he would attempt, at a summit of EU leaders next month, to extend the talks to discuss the UK’s future relationship with the bloc beyond the culmination of the two-year deadline in 2019.
Theresa May is perhaps too hamstrung by the political uncertainty at home to be assertive and bold with the negotiations abroad. It was hoped that the speech that she is to deliver in Florence this Friday, labelled by some journalists as Brexit 2.0, would build and expand upon her statements from Lancaster House. However, recent interventions by certain members of her cabinet could force her to hinge away from such progressive or revealing talk about Brexit and instead deliver the recurrent message of wanting to achieve “the best possible deal”.
However, regardless of what Mrs May says in Florence this Friday, it seems that the Brexit talks are likely to rumble on in a similar fashion with the public fated to be drip-fed snippets of progress or statements strained through the government’s negotiation filters with the ‘negotiation game’ continuing behind closed doors in Brussels.
Of course, complete transparency over the Brexit negotiations is quixotic – it wouldn’t be in the national or continental interest of either party to agree to such openness. Yet greater levels of clarity and a reduction in ambiguity might engender more support for the government amongst both the public and business – Theresa May would be well-advised to put up a few floodlights so that what we hear of the game can be supported by a bit more illumination on what is really happening.