If you want to understand Theresa May’s performance last Friday 6 July at Chequers, the UK prime minister’s country residence, I suggest you watch an old western film. Big Deal at Dodge City, from 1966, is built around an annual poker game played at Dodge City for the country’s marquee players.
Jason Robards plays the local grandee. In walks Henry Fonda, a poor sick man who can’t kick his addiction to gambling, and his straight-laced wife played by Joanne Woodward. Halfway through the poker game, Fonda is unable to go on. But he can’t cash out. His wife takes over to the utter contempt of the men, especially Robards. But then she trounces them, winning her hand outright. Robards realises they have been tricked; Woodward was always the better poker player and Fonda’s sickness was a ruse.
We do not yet know how May’s game will end. Two of the eurosceptic ministers around the table at Chequers, David Davis and Boris Johnson, have left the game, handing in their resignations on Monday. The former secretary of state for exiting the European Union and former foreign secretary, both weakened in recent months, are expendable.
Poker is high-risk – but May can go on to victory. May put on an all-too-plausible display of weakness over the past year, surrounded by power-hungry challengers in her cabinet: Johnson, Davis, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
But the prime minister played her cards close to her chest and used ambiguity as a weapon. She overturned the amendments made by the House of Lords to the government’s EU withdrawal bill and was able to usher it through the House of Commons.
Then, at Chequers, she sprung her aces, calling the Brexiteers’ bluff. She played her ‘soft Brexit’ card and asked what they had. As she had guessed, they had no winning hand to play. Like a good host, she fed and watered them well, and then sent them home defeated. May played her hand masterfully. There will more tantrums, resignations and outbursts, including from Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit-trumpeting Conservative backbencher.
But the Brexiteers have been outwitted. If they try to challenge May, she will see them off, just as John Major, Conservative prime minister between 1990-97, did when he bested the critics (whom he termed , ‘the bastards’) in his cabinet.
The big poker game is still to come with Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator. Davis, who infamously held only four hours of talks with Barnier this year, has been replaced by Dominic Raab, a eurosceptic parliamentarian with experience in the justice and housing ministries. He will need to be a tough negotiator when representing May in Brussels and elsewhere. But the story of a weak prime minister can be laid to rest – May won the big deal at Chequers.
Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Chair of the OMFIF Advisers Council.