Such is its devilish complexity, Brexit is often portrayed as a game of 3-D chess, understandable only to the grandest of grand masters. Yet in reality it is far simpler: a tedious game of political tic-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses, for our British readers) in which each side is forever countering the previous move by its opponent but unable to ever triumph. The winner is, then, not a master strategist, but simply the one who is last to make a mistake.
This is how best to understand the series of seismic but impenetrable battles being waged between Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and his opponents in Westminster this week: battles that are not primarily about what they claim—whether for this motion or that amendment—but rather part of a much larger but simpler game in which each side is trying to ensure that it is not outmaneuvered by the other in a way that will make victory or defeat inevitable.
The problem is that, in Brexit, the two sides have thus far been evenly matched and always able to extend the game to avoid a conclusion. With no majority for any party in Parliament, the government’s every move can be countered by the opposition—one step forward, one step back. Yet the opposition, united in what it does not want, has proved unable to agree on what it does want, and therefore cannot outmaneuver the government in return. The opposition does not want Britain to leave the European Union without a deal, so it can block Johnson’s moves to force one, yet it is not united in wanting a second Brexit referendum, so cannot force one. The result: an endless charade of marking X’s and O’s without any chance of a breakthrough.