Andrew Vine: Behind the poker face, is the PM’s Brexit plan just a bluff?

Does Theresa May have a Brexit strategy?
Does Theresa May have a Brexit strategy?
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A FAILED attempt to learn how to play poker a few years ago has started to produce a very strange sense of déjà vu every time the Prime Minister appears on television.

As I juggled clumsily with the cards, doing painfully slow mental gymnastics about what they were worth and the hands the other players might be holding, the realisation dawned that I hadn’t a clue what was going on.

In the face of this complete and utter ineptitude, the friend trying to teach me to play finally advised with a touch of desperation to simply sit there and look confident in the hope somebody else would slip up.

And when it comes to the detail of what Brexit means for Britain, I’m getting the distinct impression that’s rather akin to what Theresa May is doing.

It isn’t just instinct. A former senior civil servant whom I know says his colleagues who are still in post really aren’t sure what is going on.

There is a lack of clarity coming from the Government to its officials, an absence of detail about what precisely Britain’s position should be in negotiations about leaving the EU, what the objectives are and how to achieve them.

Everything is in broad brush strokes, according to the former mandarin. It’s the will of the people to leave. We want the best deal for Britain. The future ahead is bright. This is a great trading nation that will strike deals all over the world.

Well, yes Minister, but how exactly would you like us to proceed?

Repeating what sound like slogans from the referendum campaign of last summer does not add up to a detailed agenda for either taking Britain out of the EU or plotting the map to the future.

It’s the ex-official’s view that the Government has not yet fully come to terms with the ramifications of what Brexit is going to involve, and that the sheer amount of detail to be got to grips with is proving daunting.

There is no surprise in that, given this is the most complicated political and legal exercise since the Second World War, and if there was plenty of time for the Government to absorb all the detail before negotiations start, it wouldn’t be a problem.

But there isn’t the luxury of time. Article 50, beginning the formal process of leaving the EU, will be triggered within weeks, and the impression of a Government and Prime Minister not fully prepared for it is a matter of serious concern.

A worrying series of signs point to this lack of readiness.

The resignation of Britain’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, last week, with his stinging parting shot about “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” in Government circles, does not inspire confidence.

The former colleagues who rallied to his defence as he came under political attack spoke of a “policy vacuum” about Brexit. That is an extraordinary accusation for impartial career civil servants to level at any Government.

Nor does Mrs May’s demeanour do much to dispel the suspicion that all is far from settled. Her appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee last month was faltering and tortuous when it should have been a walk in the park for a Prime Minister with a fully-formed plan of action.

The broad-brush, wait-and-see approach was much in evidence in her first television interview of 2017 on Sunday, when there was little clue about detail, and yesterday’s speech concentrated on domestic policy.

This all-in-good-time stance on revealing the nitty-gritty of Brexit is wearing thin.

Mrs May has made a trademark out of her air of calm since becoming Prime Minister, projecting the impression of assurance and limitless reserves of competence.

The problem is that it might all be front. Her oft-repeated position that she will not give the EU an advantage in negotiations by setting out her plans in detail is the most effective of smokescreens.

It is hard to challenge, since if there is a detailed plan, then it would be foolish to reveal it before the time is right to put it into action.

But what if there isn’t a plan? What if the steadfast refusal to give anything away in fact means that there is little to offer except vague generalities of getting the best for Britain and being tough in negotiations?

The leave campaign that ultimately propelled Mrs May – a reluctant remainer – into Downing Street never had a plan for the morning after its unexpected win.

The months since then have only raised additional questions.

If Mrs May is playing a game of poker with a hand that isn’t worth much and believes her best course is to keep the cards close, look confident and hope the EU will blink first, that is a risky strategy.

Because if her bluff is called, we will all be the losers.