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Analysis

PM isn’t such a great poker player. We now know her tell

by Hugo Dixon | 28.02.2019

When poker players blink, they often have a weak hand. Theresa May blinked yesterday when confronted with losing control of the parliamentary process. She’ll probably do so again.

The prime minister actually blinked three times this week. The best known was when she caved into a demand from around 20 ministers to allow a vote to delay Brexit on March 14. Another was when she backed a proposal by Alberto Costa to protect the rights of UK citizens in the EU and vice versa, despite forcing him to resign from the government.

May blinked yet another time, whipping her MPs to support an amendment from her nemesis, Labour’s Yvette Cooper. What lay behind this decision is like a “tell” in poker. It reveals what she fears.

Cooper’s amendment may seem innocuous. All she was doing was putting into a House of Commons motion the words that the prime minister had been forced to agree to stop mass resignations from her government on Tuesday.

But May was humiliated by imposing a three-line whip to support an amendment telling her to stick to her word. Why didn’t she just say she was standing by what she had told MPs the day before – and that they should trust her to stick to her word?

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The reason is that Cooper and her comrade-in-arms, the Conservative Oliver Letwin, had a bazooka in addition to their humiliating amendment. They were planning to wrest control of the parliamentary timetable from the government – and ram through legislation which could compel the prime minister to ask for a delay to Brexit.

Even if some newspapers got over-excited in describing this manoeuvre as a “very British coup”, it was a constitutional innovation with far-reaching implications. Traditionally the government controls what MPs discuss.

If May had refused to support Cooper’s humiliating amendment, she would have faced the bazooka. The fact that she didn’t reveals that she was really worried about losing control of the parliamentary process.

Before Brexit is over, MPs may have to force the prime minister to bend to their will again. Now they know that if they can credibly threaten to wrest control of the Commons timetable, she will probably cave again. They have discovered her tell.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

One Response to “PM isn’t such a great poker player. We now know her tell”

  • May has several tells. One is when she says ‘I have been perfectly clear…’ (she hasn’t – usually means a U-Turn is coming up) and ‘X means X’ (which is meaningless – usually means she’s winging it).

    When she says them, she has a bad hand and doesn’t know how to play it.