If you want to win, it helps to know what game you’re playing

In the classic game of “chicken”, two drivers hurtle toward each other at speed. The winner is the one who can stay on course – provided he can make the other driver veer away. If neither driver veers away then they both lose.

Game theory tells us that the best strategy for such a situation is to remove your steering wheel, throw it out the window and let the other driver see you do it. He then knows that you can’t change direction even if you wanted to and so he must accept defeat.

In the two years since the Brexit referendum, the U.K. Government have failed (or perhaps refused) to articulate a clear and plausible set of goals for their negotiations with the E.U. The most charitable explanation for this is that they are approaching those negotiations like a game of chicken. Undeniably, there are some parallels to be drawn; politicians on both sides operate in the full glare of media scrutiny where the “winners” will be the side seen to hold most firmly to their “red lines”. Also, as with a game of chicken, if neither side makes concessions both will suffer.

Theresa May hasn’t yet thrown away her steering wheel but she has allowed competing factions within her cabinet to publicly wrestle for it and try to wrench it in opposing directions. Perhaps she is gambling that the effect will be the same – i.e. to convince the onlooking EU that it must be the party to behave sensibly and give ground.

However, if May is applying game-theory then she has hopelessly misunderstood the nature of the game she is playing. The EU isn’t driving a car – it is driving a massive train. Colliding with May’s stuttering banger will cause the EU train damage but it won’t be fatal. What would be fatal is if the EU allowed the UK to cherry-pick the best parts of EU membership and discard the rest. Very quickly, Eurosceptic parties across the continent would be agitating for similar arrangements for their country and the EU would fall apart.

The EU train doesn’t want a collision but it is preferable to a derailment. It is the EU who cannot change course and May needs to realise this.

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