Democrats have called Trump’s bluff – it’s time for MPs to do the same with Theresa May’s no-deal Brexit threat

Faced with crises that require compromise, the Laurel and Hardy of geopolitics respond so identically that you wonder if uneasily holding hands that time caused some sort of Vulcan mind meld

Matthew Norman
Sunday 27 January 2019 17:13 GMT
Donald Trump walks with Theresa May to a joint press conference at Chequers
Donald Trump walks with Theresa May to a joint press conference at Chequers (PA)

If you’ve sat at the table for 20 minutes and still don’t know who the sucker is, runs an ancient poker maxim, the sucker is you.

What goes for poker goes in spades for ultimate stakes political negotiating, as confirmed by the popular transatlantic slapstick double act of Trump and May.

On this side of the ocean, the PM clings to the fantasy that she can bluff the EU27 into abandoning a barrier between the UK and Ireland without her agreeing to remain permanently in a customs union.

On the other, the president clings to his about bluffing the Democrats into funding that beautiful wall between the US and Mexico. In three weeks, he insisted after folding on Friday, he will be back at the table asking the dealer for a new hand.

Although a fresh deal is the last thing May will countenance (or so she says for now), the parallels are uncanny. The arrogant intransigence of both has dictated a government shutdown – literally so until Friday in the States, and a de facto one here with a paralysed executive able to do nothing but bicker among itself.

Both face a speaker of the House they cannot intimidate into mucking a winning hand. John Bercow’s power to choose which Brexit amendments will be put to the vote makes him the most significant political figure in Britain. Sniffing immortality as the saviour who steered his country away from no deal, he can be relied on to stretch convention and precedent to breaking point for his place in history.

Nancy Pelosi’s adamantine refusal to give an inch to Trump makes her arguably his most lethal enemy in a monumentally crowded field.

Faced with crises that plainly require compromise, the Laurel and Hardy of geopolitics respond so identically that you wonder if uneasily holding hands that time caused some sort of Vulcan mind meld. They double down on the bluffs by threatening armageddon.

Trump suggests he will re-shut the government and declare a national emergency if Pelosi and her Democrats refuse him a deal on his wall money in February. In the event of no deal here, as conveniently leaked two days before the Commons votes on her Plan A Gold, May is preparing for martial law.

I have played in Vegas with some of the biggest suckers ever to fold a suited AK before the flop, and been one of them myself, and not one of us would have mistaken these moves for strength.

Every terrible poker player has an obvious tell. In Casino Royale, Le Chiffre alerted 007 to a bluff by weeping blood. Homer Simpson, on being dealt four jacks, whooped and did a lap of honour around the table.

The blatant tell shared by this strangely suited pair is the movement of their lips. Can anyone here seriously believe that May wouldn’t blink, and revoke Article 50 if necessary, if she faced the genuine prospect of requiring Her Britannic Majesty’s subjects to weave through armoured tanks to get to the corner shop? Will anyone in Washington buy the notion that Trump, having damaged approval ratings with one shutdown, will almost immediately do it again?

Even now, 22 months before the next election, he begins to look like almost as lame a duck as May. He has haemorrhaged the support of independents and other demographic groups such as suburban women, who in their surreal wisdom reckoned him a better bet than Hillary in 2016.

The cave to Pelosi is finally eating into his base. If he gives into Ann Coulter and other assorted maniacs by going nuclear on the wall, he will lose more independents. If he yields to common sense and lets it drop, he will lose more of his base. Pincered between what pass in the US for centrists and the frothing mad far right that equates compromise with treachery, he is in an eerily similar pickle to May.

In one way, hers is the better position. Almost every member of her inner circle has yet to be arrested, charged and flipped by the FBI. Roger Stone, the dandified black ops specialist who must know the location of more Trump corpses than anyone else after several decades spent digging the graves, is the latest defendant to roll off Robert Mueller’s production line.

If and when Stone flips – and you needn’t be a poker savant to peg his oath of lifelong loyalty for a transparent bluff – the odds against Trump leaving office before the 2020 election will narrow a little more.

In another way, May’s situation is worse. What Trump might do to distract from his domestic agonies doesn’t bear contemplating without a bucket of Xanax at hand. But so far he hasn’t expertly shepherded his country to the precipice of an existential crisis.

On either side of the Atlantic, at the same moment, war is raging between the executive and the legislature. The US Constitution, as designed by geniuses to enable Congress to restrict the menace of a recklessly self-interested leader, is working as intended. Whether our unwritten pretend constitution will do the same rests on whether enough of the other players have worked out who the sucker is. They have spent long enough at the table to have no excuse for buying her bluff.

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