You play the Prime Minister and you have two years (played out over four six-monthly “game turns”) to negotiate Britain’s future relationship with the union of which it has been a member since 1973. Imagine a divorce settlement after forty-five years of marriage, multiply by a half a billion people, add a poisonous cauldron of political ideology, raise to boiling point with a baying partisan press that's way off to the right of Attila the Hun, and you’ll have some idea of how smoothly those talks are going to go.
In Can You Brexit? there are ten main issues to be negotiated (residency rights for EU citizens living in Britain, security & defence arrangements post-Brexit, the National Health Service, etc) and you only have time to oversee a few of those issues in person; the rest are delegated to your ministers. So you have to manage your time while trying to prevent the four metrics (Authority, Economy, Popularity and Goodwill) from going into a tailspin.
Describing it like that makes it sound dry. It’s not. Think Veep or The Thick of It (or, for older readers, Yes Minister) rather than House of Cards or The West Wing. (Not that those last two are dry either, but you know what I mean.) At the same time, we aimed to make the game part of it informative and factually accurate. Perhaps the best comparison is Private Eye, with its blend of blistering satire, nose-tweaking mischief, and hard-nosed determination to speak truth to power. Jamie did win the 2012 Roald Dahl Funny Prize, after all, so trust me, you'll be entertained as well as informed.
Only hours after our agent sent the manuscript out to publishers he was getting replies that described it as brilliant. One editor phoned up the next day to say she’d read it and thought it was a work of genius. There’s a but. None of London’s top publishers took it – and to explain why an editor’s wild enthusiasm for a book could be shot down so easily by the acquisitions committees that make these decisions I’d have to give you a crash course in how modern publishing works. But here's a typical response that we got a month on:
“I loved the idea and I promptly sent it round to all my colleagues. I was particularly taken by the level of effort Dave and Jamie have put into it. Added to which, they write really well (the Yes Minister comparison was a good one). I’m afraid where it foundered for us was the horrible greyness of Brexit itself. The book is very funny but the thought of imagining yourself into running the debacle is enough to make anyone want to hide in a cupboard – so I’m not convinced that the coverage I could definitely see this book getting would lead to proper sales… and I’m afraid they all agreed. So I’m afraid in the end we are going to pass, even though there is something essentially very brilliant about the book. It is a great project that definitely deserves success. ”That's publishers these days. Always willing to back something they truly believe in, just so long as there's absolutely no risk attached. Pass me the spittoon. Luckily Jamie and I have our own small publishing imprint, so the fruit of a year’s labour doesn’t have to be cast into a desk drawer. I realize it’s not shotgunning zombies or looting dragon hoards, but if you want to see what a gamebook for grown-ups looks like, this one's for you.
And as an antidote to all those naysayers in publishing, who really just want a TV celeb to offer them a book about cats and Brexit, we got this cheering endorsement from my good friend Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist and presenter of BBC Radio's More or Less.
“A wholly original approach to the big question of our times, this book educates, entertains, and also achieves the seemingly impossible feat of making you empathise with Theresa May. It reminded me of Yes Minister: it made me laugh, but then it made me think.”
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