In October 1974, Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman for the World Heavyweight Championship, in Kinshasa, Zaire. The contest was advertised as The Rumble In The Jungle.
The fight confounded all expectations. Whilst the first round was conventional enough, in the second – much to the consternation of his own team – Ali retreated to the ring ropes and invited Foreman to take free hits at him.
Despite this alarming move, Ali won the fight, by a knock-out in the eighth round. What he had done was simply to outwait his opponent, holding off until his own moment to strike came along.
Here’s what Ali said about the way things had played out:
“I was on the ropes, but he was trapped, because attacking was all he know how to do. By round six, I knew he was tired … by the time I got him, he was so exhausted that to pull himself up was too much.”
This innovative tactic came to be known as the “rope-a-dope”. The idea was to let your opponent knock himself out, in effect. It certainly worked a treat for Muhammad Ali.
Brexit: The Weigh-in
As the Government that was saddled with delivering the UK’s departure from the EU, the Tories at first managed to put on a show of being decisive. Following the 2016 referendum result, Article 50 notice was served promptly enough and we were off down the path of no return, towards our glorious future.
Querulous opponents were shouted down with the airy dismissal that “Brexit means Brexit” (sometimes “Leave means Leave“, just for variety). Theresa May’s Government was resolute and the Remoaners would just have to lump it.
Mrs May called a General Election in June 2017, with the proclaimed aim of making “a success of Brexit”. She told us that “every vote for me and my team on 8 June will strengthen my hand in those negotiations”. That didn’t quite go to plan, however.
Rather than giving us the benefit of continued “strong and stable leadership”, May ended up losing her majority and had to endure the added humiliation of needing to get into bed with the DUP.
Even before then, however, the wheels were coming off her wagon. It had become clear very soon after the referendum that no-one in the Leave camp had any substantive idea of what a post-Brexit operating model should look like, never mind how to get there from our starting position.
The superficially reasonable defence to criticism was that no sensible party would enter negotiations having first revealed its hand. It didn’t take long for that to be exposed as bluster: all the cards up their collective sleeve were in fact blank. Worse still, Johnny Foreigner seemed not to care that he wasn’t being very British about things by coming to meetings having prepared in advance.
Having failed to negotiate anything at all, David Davis left the Government, thereby freeing him up to snipe away from the Back Benches at the lack of progress. Boris Johnson soon followed, in the hope that he could dodge the oncoming bullet and – somehow – increase his future leadership prospects.
To switch to a boxing metaphor, May’s Tories turned up for the pre-bout weigh-in visibly out of condition, with a bag of chips in one hand and a lit fag in the other.
Labour Steps Into The Ring
The period since the 2016 referendum hasn’t been easy for Labour either. The full might of the British Establishment has been ranged against it, with vicious attacks in the press on a constant basis. The massive swell in party numbers was declared to have resulted from “entryism” by Stalinists, Trotskyites, anarchists and any other kind of extremist they could think of.
Corbyn in particular has been pilloried at every turn. The smear attempts have included the claims that he:
- is a Marxist extremist intent on bankrupting Britain
- has a plan to turn Britain into a new Zimbabwe
- met a Communist spy during the Cold War and was himself an agent of a foreign power
- called Hezbollah and Hamas “friends”
- voted against the Good Friday Agreement
- wants Britain to abolish its Army
- wants an asteroid to wipe out humanity
- didn’t support the England team at the World Cup
- danced on his way to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day
- stole sandwiches meant for veterans at a Battle of Britain memorial service.
What was true, however, was that his great-great-grandfather had been the master of a Victorian workhouse. The Daily Express deduced that without question this ancestor must have been “despotic” in nature. Corbyn apologised for not having gone back in time to sort him out.
If you believed the headline writers, Corbyn was on the ropes. They implored the Labour Party to remove him from office and the voters at large never to make the mistake of letting him form a government. Even some of his current MPs – as well as many former ones, including previous leadership rivals – were only too ready to put their own boot in.
Throughout this onslaught, Corbyn kept on being Jeremy Corbyn. He simply soaked up the pressure, resisting the temptation to respond in kind. Meanwhile Momentum, the party-within-a-party, steadily tightened its grip on Labour at all levels.
At Last, Into Round 6
Labour did not win the 2017 General Election, but Jeremy Corbyn and his crew came out of it with their credibility much enhanced. With a weakened Tory Government, you’d have expected Labour to go on the attack, particularly over Brexit.
You’d have been wrong, though. Labour did not try to vote down most of the various Bexit-related measures presented to Parliament.
What became clear was that the strategy was to keep the head down and let the Tories take all the flak, which was coming from both sides of the debate. Labour’s own stance evolved into that of staying in the (or, at least, a) Customs Union but not the Single Market. Leaving aside a critique of that as workable policy, it’s a stroke of genius as regards being able to appeal to everyone.
Theresa May’s Chequers fox has been savaged by her own party hounds, saving the EU marksmen the effort. The ultimate fall-back of No Deal has been coaxed out of its coffin and is now desperately being warmed up, although half-dead does seem to be the best that anyone believes might be achieved for that. The vultures of the ERG are circling overhead, menacingly.
Labour hasn’t argued against Brexit, but has instead criticised the Tory progress with it. By not opposing, it stays on side with its own traditional heartlands. Likewise, by appearing to be in favour of perhaps a softer Brexit than the Tories, it offers some hope to Remainers, who really don’t have anywhere else to go.
The one thing Theresa May got right in her 2017 General Election announcement speech was when she talked about the “political game playing” of the Opposition at Westminster.
When it comes to Brexit, Corbyn’s Labour seems to have played a blinder, managing to stay on the sidelines relatively unscathed whilst the May Government has succeeded only in exhausting itself.
The dopes have been well and truly roped.
Round 8: Are We There Yet?
Despite the predictions in the lead-up to it and an apparent stumble at the last minute as regards agreement on the Brexit resolution wording, the Labour Party Conference finally saw a successful move onto the front foot. The combination of the contribution of Keir Starmer and the keynote speech by Jeremy Corbyn has thrown down the gauntlet in the form of a clear challenge to Theresa May’s Government.
Bets are still being hedged, though. If Mrs May can deliver a Brexit deal that protects jobs, guarantees environmental and workplace protections, avoids a hard border in Ireland and keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU, then Labour will go along with that. If not, then Labour will actively oppose and instead might – sort of, maybe – look sympathetically at a second referendum.
What shouldn’t be missed is that this does not mean that Brexit is the contest that Labour is principally concerned with. No, the prize it has its eyes fixed on is a new General Election. The calculation is that it could be on to a win-win:
- If the Tories tear themselves apart over Brexit then that’s just fine.
- If May is forced into No Deal – either because she runs out of road or because the ultras manoeuvre her that way – then when the excrement hits the fan Labour can tell everyone that it told us so.
This is where my Rumble In The Jungle analogy falls down somewhat, because the ending here may be somewhat different. It is just possible that Corbyn can knock May out. Certainly, she’s weakening whilst he’s getting stronger.
What’s not clear, though, is the state the country will be in by the time we see any conclusion to that struggle. The danger for all of us is that the outcome will look more like this:
Whilst rope-a-dope may have delivered victories for Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring, it likely contributed to the long-term damage to health that he suffered. He ended up a pitiful figure, mocked and parodied on TV shows. His shambolic appearance during the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 was treated more kindly, but it was still a sorry sight.
A Labour government will always be better than a Tory one. In a post-Brexit world, however, that may be akin to comparing a points decision to a knock-out. They both leave you defeated.
2. I’ve never understood the logic behind the criticism of entryism. You can’t have a party open to all and also complain if large numbers of people do actually join. Calling into question their motives is a pointless exercise. When it comes to it, everyone has an agenda, even you.
4. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, a disease that can result from head trauma such as that experienced by boxers. There is no irrefutable link between the two, but the balance of probability does point in the direction of an increased level of risk.
Rope-a-dope allowed Ali to extend his career long after his earlier prowess had deserted him (when he could no longer “float like a butterfly”). The sad thing is that the beatings he took in his later bouts are likely to have delivered the coup-de-grace in terms of his physical degeneration.
Just for the sake of it, here’s a take on the morality of boxing.