Europe, they just cannot quit you. Someday, when I’m old and gray(er), I’ll be able to tell the unbelieving youth that there was a time the UK lost its fool mind, but it got it back in time.
Forty years ago today, Margaret Thatcher ascended to 10 Downing Street, beginning a legendary and iron-fisted rule of a dozen tension-fraught years. No fan of the European Economic Community, Prime Minister Thatcher believed European integration was at odds with her desire to privatize and deregulate government assets. In a 1988 speech, she said:
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.” – Margaret Thatcher’s remarks to the College of Europe.
Thatcher’s passed now. But after four decades, what would she have thought if she could see the chaos reigning over Parliament in the wake of the 2016 Brexit vote? Would she have been happy to see a fellow female prime minister stand against European hegemony? Would she support Theresa May’s adversaries in the Tory party as they struck down deal after deal? Would she warn against a Labour surge if the party didn’t align over a common notion?
No, she would wade in there, crush everyone, and impose the voters’ will. She’s not the Iron Lady of the Western World for nothing. If the will of the voters changed, she wouldn’t care. She’d still walk out of Parliament with a clean Brexit deal. She’s Margaret Freaking Thatcher.
Theresa May is many things, but she’s no Margaret Thatcher.
Which is not to say she’s not a survivor. Vote after vote has been disastrous for the permanently disastrous P.M., but she has not lost a no-confidence vote. Her own Tory government seems hell-bent on railroading her out, but she has not been railroaded out. A lesser politician might not have survived her response to the Grenfell Tower fire, but she did. Hecklers shout at her, “Why don’t you resign?” Nevertheless, she persists. She has a tenacity that’s admirable. As the punsters might say, “Where there’s a will, Theresa May.”
But Friday’s local elections might be too much even for her. Out of a possible 8,400 seats, the Conservatives lost more than 1,300 of their seats. Thirteen hundred is an immense number. They started with 4,896 seats and 137 of the 259 council majorities, and ended up with 3,562 seats and 93 councils. For my American friends, this is like if the Republicans lost half the Deep South.
At the heart of the Tory drubbing is the party’s contentious wrangling over Brexit, a European quickie-divorce that a fair number of its “Leave” backers regret intensely. The “Bregretters” form the basis of a hopeful movement to overturn the 52%–48% referendum with a vote on a “Second Brexit.” The margin was narrow enough last time that “Remain” might take the field after another vote, should it come. (Though, it’s worth considering how daft it is that something as critical as membership in your own continent comes down to a simple majority. Is the word “supermajority” not taught in British schools?)
The Tories who oppose the deal May negotiated with EU leaders refuse to believe it is good for the UK. Instead of controlling its own institutions—which, after all, was the point—the UK would be subject to EU terms but not be capable of shaping those terms. Folks who live in Washington D.C. are nodding along right now. That doesn’t sound so crazy, except when you look at the alternative: a “cliff’s edge” Brexit where every British citizen and firm is discombobulated when the EU cuts Britain off without any structure at all. A cliff’s edge is 100% chaos from the opening gun. Theresa May doesn’t want that. So she fights her own party. The Friday election results are a decent indicator of how that’s going for her.
But to step aside from the Tories for a moment, let’s look at the other side. If the Tories lost 1,300 seats, what happened with their longtime foes, Labour? Jeremy Corbyn’s party was expected to pick up as many as 400 of those Tory seats. It had to be a celebratory night on Victoria Street. How’d they do?
Terrible, as it turns out. Labour lost 82 seats—nearly a 500-seat swing from their own expectations. They lost control of Labour bastions like Bolsover, Stockton, and Middlesborough. In the midst of a Tory wipeout, Labour crashed out among the voters. This is like if the Democrats lost half of New England. How could something like that happen?
Where the Tories have been staunchly on the side of “Leave,” Labour has been on the side of “Be Annoying.” They neither oppose nor support Brexit; they just oppose the Tories. This is an untenable approach. Jeremy Corbyn has been anything but a leader. Indeed, he’s been wallowing in a fake scandal about his supposed antisemitic views. Which is kind of a tragedy, but Britain needs a rallying point against the Tories’ views, not the Tories’ chaos. Labour chose to be “the other guys” when they could’ve just been “the guys.”
Corbyn fell into this trap despite the warnings of his own party. Listen to the words of his party’s economic spokesperson.
“I think an overwhelming majority oppose anything that smacks of being no deal. Then we could be into a situation of a war of attrition within parliament of amendments to legislation taking place and uncertainty continuing.” — Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell
OK, that’s the first cool thing I’ve said. Why can’t we have Shadow Chancellors here? I would make a boss Shadow Chancellor. I’d bring my own cloak.
Anyway, sorry, to McDonnell’s point. McDonnell called the current battle a “war of attrition.” That’s exactly what it is. In game theory, a war of attrition is a game in which each side can fight to gain a monetary prize or fold to gain nothing, but each round of play costs both sides part of their potential prize. If you repeatedly fight a war of attrition, eventually even victory isn’t worth it. You’ve cost yourself so much that you would have been better off doing something else entirely. So has your opponent. In real wars, these are measured in lives; World War I, for example, was a war of attrition that accomplished little of merit for both sides. In business, a hostile takeover that becomes a war of attrition can leave a shell of a company. It’s bad.
You should never fight a war of attrition that you can’t win early. Every loss you take is a sunk cost. That cost cannot be regained, no matter whether you win or lose the game. And that cost might affect whether you win the game, as you might not have the strength to continue playing.
May’s Brexit strategy—bring vote after vote in hopes that one will eventually pass—is a necessary approach for Britain to beat a deadline for a Withdrawal Agreement that blunts the catastrophic economic damage Brexit will inflict. But it’s also the wrong approach for the Tories, and May has almost certainly known that from the beginning. Each subsequent “no deal” has cost the Tories greatly, to the point that the voting public checked out of Torydom for good. May would have been far better off abandoning the deal proposals until her party came together around a plan that worked for all of them.
The Labour Party, caught up in its own glee at seeing the Conservatives clash, played along. But they never took a stand for a position. They could have painted themselves as the face of “Remain,” knowing that in a three-way war between “Deal Tories,” “No-Deal Tories,” and “Remain Labourites,” they might actually prevail. Reading the winds has never been Corbyn’s strength. Being an annoyance has been. That’s why the UK only occasionally thinks of him as prime minister material. Labour needs a new face, just as the Tories do.
And speaking of “Remain,” I haven’t yet mentioned who won Friday’s election. No, it wasn’t UKIP, the party of “Burn It All Down.” They got smashed too. They lost 145 seats, down to a mere 31. For all meaningful purposes, UKIP no longer exists. Don’t let the ashcan of history hit you on the way out, chaps.
The real winners of Friday’s election were the Liberal Democrats, who have unreservedly backed “Remain” since day 1. They want an exit from Brexit. The Lib-Dems gained 703 seats, half of what the Tories lost, to a total of 1,350, more than doubling their representation. They added 12 councils. With an 8% uptick in votes, that is one of the all-time great jumps in Britain.
Meanwhile, the Green Party, who also back “Remain,” picked up 194 seats, and they started with 71. They nearly tripled their representation. They have a natural alliance with the Lib-Dems on issues like this and others. If the two parties form a bloc, they can stop anyone from forming a government.
If a Second Brexit happens, Remain is going to win. On the polling chart below, the yellow dots show support for Remain, while the blue dots show support for Leave. That’s a freight train of anti-Brexit energy.
There’s a deadline, though. The EU has a hard and non-negotiable rule: Two years after you invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and say you’re going to leave, you’re out, deal or no deal. So if the UK is going to vote on Second Brexit, they had better get going.
Except… Article 50 was invoked on March 23, 2017. We’re past the two-year mark. The deadline, once claimed irrevocable, was extended until Halloween. The government will likely be in recess for a lot of that time, but maybe, just maybe, the Tories and Labour have learned their lesson. The war of attrition killed them both, and UKIP with them. The Lib-Dems and Greens may unite to force a reckoning. Labour may have to make a real choice about what they stand for. And the Conservative Party might have to consider the unthinkable and unify behind a deal. There’s no guarantee any of them will be that smart.
My thruppence is on a new referendum in which Brexit is defeated. Someday, when I’m old and gray(er), I’ll be able to tell the unbelieving youth that there was a time the UK lost its fool mind, but it got it back in time. They’ll ask me about who would do such a thing, but I won’t remember who Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May were. I’ll just remember that Europe is forever.🔷
This is the thirty-fifth installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, and William Barr. The first 21 of these essays are in my book Game Theory in the Age of Chaos.
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(This piece was originally published on the PMP Blog! | The author writes in a personal capacity.)