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Friday, 7 September 2018

‘Yes, Prime Minister’: Some thoughts and reflections on the Connections UK 2018 Megagame

I have been attending Connections UK for some years and have usually been given an umpiring role in the megagame that takes place on the first day. This year I hadn’t, which somewhat surprised me … but before the first day of the conference I was informed by one of the umpires that I had an important role to play in the megagame. He did not elaborate, and I arrived with no idea what the megagame would be about nor what my role might be.

After registering and being given my ID badge, I joined the other attendees in the reception hall for a much-needed coffee and croissant. I paid a short visit to the main hall where the megagame was to be played, and as I looked around it soon became apparent that the subject of the game was going to be something to do with the UK and the time in which the game was set would be the present or near future.

During coffee we were asked to visit the table set aside for game role allocation … and it was at that point that I was informed that I was taking the part of the Prime Minister of the UK! I went straight to the long table set aside for the Cabinet, sat down in the PM’s chair, and began to draft some notes for my first Cabinet meeting. I was introduced to the young UCL lecturer who was to be my Cabinet Secretary (he turned out to be an excellent choice by the organisers, and I came to rely upon him a great deal during the game for both the support he gave me and the way in which he ensured that the Cabinet Office functioned so efficiently), and then my Cabinet.

My Cabinet … well I’d never met any of them before, and I had no idea about their capabilities and real-life experience. I was extremely pleased to see that I had almost as many female as male colleagues as my experience of running any form of committee has taught me that women tend to work in a far more cooperative way than men, and that their presence on a committee tends to communicate that trait to their male colleagues. (This may seem to be a sweeping generalisation, and there are – of course – exceptions to this amongst both genders, but that is my experience … and it was borne out yet again during this megagame.)

When my Cabinet was assembled, and I took a deep breath before speaking to them for the first time, I was suddenly aware that almost everyone in the hall – including many members of the various departments and ministerial teams – were listening to hear what I had to say. At that point I realised that what I was about to say could well determine how well – or badly – the day would go. In brief, this is what I said:
  • I was Prime Minister and my role was to be primus inter pares (first amongst equals) BUT that ultimately it was my head that was on the line.
  • I warned them to be very wary of the media and not to talk to them as leaking of any kind would be dealt with.
  • When incidents and crises began to occur – as they undoubtedly would – to make sure that they knew their ministerial team and that their PUS (Permanent Under Secretary, the head of their ministerial team) was keeping them well informed.
  • I would usually chair the meetings of the Cabinet, and that the Home Secretary would act as my Deputy Prime Minister in my absence.
  • That I would give each of the Cabinet members a fair hearing during meetings (which would be conducted under Chatham House Rules), but that if I made a ‘T’ sign with my hands, their time was up.
  • Decisions made in Cabinet were binding on us all, and that if a member was not happy with a decision, they could resign … but that was not a course of action I would recommend if they wanted any future in politics!
The look on the faces of my Cabinet as I finished talking was memorable, and I think that they got the message that although this was a ’game’, I was going to treat it as if it was real. I hope that this set the mood for what happened during the rest of the megagame … and from the verbal feedback I had afterwards, I think that I was reasonably successful.

The Cabinet dispersed to meet their teams, and I was able to have a chat with my Cabinet Secretary about what I wanted from him. As noted above, he turned out the be an excellent right-hand man.

The game started with several low-level crises, but as the tempo of the game increased, they became more and more difficult. I will not detail all of them, but they included wide-spread flooding in parts of the UK, the death of a senior member of the Royal Family, terrorist and cyber-attacks on UK infrastructure as well as on UK citizens who were abroad, serious overstretch in the emergency services, and increasing tension in Eastern Europe.

As a Cabinet we were just about able to cope with the domestic crises, but as it became apparent that the Russians were behind the ratchetting up of the tension in Eastern Europe and some of the ‘terrorism’ and cyber-attacks within the UK, we moved to a more passive/aggressive posture. In other words, we enhanced military support to eastern NATO countries and practiced a full-scale Cabinet evacuation to a secure bunker.

As tensions rose, so did the level of problems that we had to find solutions to. The discovery of listening devices in the Cabinet Room and the arrest of a four-man team of Speznatz in Portsmouth precipitated matters, and we – the Cabinet – moved to the secure bunker, along with representatives (usually the PUS) of the ministerial teams. I think that I shocked my Cabinet colleagues when I ordered that all means – however extreme they might be – should be used to extract information from the captured Russian Special Forces Team. I asked that it be done by contractors and that it should take place outside the UK. I then told the Cabinet that this was a decision that I alone would make, and that they bore no responsibility for it.

As events moved closer and closer to the possibility of open conflict with the Russians, I received a message that the President of the Russian Federation wished to speak to me on the telephone. There then proceeded to be what can only be described as a farcical situation. Although he was physically in an adjoining room, the phone link just would not work properly. At one point I said ‘Hello, Vladimir’ … and was greeted by a recorded announcement that the person I wanted to talk to was not available and that I could leave a message after the tone! (One hopes that in real-life, this could not happen!)

Once we did manage to talk, we were able to de-escalate the situation, with both sides agreeing to pull back … although I suspect that we withdrew more than they did! At this point the game ended, and we moved to the de-brief.

Memorable events are difficult to summarise as there were so many. What I can state is that the members of the Cabinet – and their ministerial teams – all performed very well indeed. Several were outstanding, particularly the Minister of Transport, the Culture, Media, and Sport Secretary, the Business Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary for Defence, the Environment Secretary, the Health Secretary, and – of course – the Cabinet Secretary. I will not mention them by name, but I would more than willingly work with them again.

I would also like to thank the organisers of Connections UK and particularly Jim Wallman (who has known me for thirty-eight years!) and his team who produced what was an excellent megagame. I must also thank the Red Team, who generated enough problems to keep us on our toes all the time. In a conversation afterwards with ‘Vladimir’ I discovered that when we moved to the secure bunker for the second time, the Red Team began to wonder if we were actually going to go to war to prevent further Russian pressure on the Eastern European NATO states … and that was why the ‘phone call had been made.

As an aside, on the second day of the conference quite a few attendees actually greeted me with the words 'Good morning, Prime Minister' ... which would seem to indicate that I must have had some impact on the previous day's events!

20 comments:

  1. That sounds like a very good game and I commend you on your revealed performance as PM.

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    1. Justin Penwith,

      It was a outstanding game, and I hope that my small efforts helped to make it a good experience for the other participants.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  2. Congratulations on your promotion Bob...now could you sort out Brexit??

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    1. Alastair,

      Cheers! It was a great megagame, and I enjoyed being PM for a day.

      As Remainer who accepted the democratic decision made by the electorate from Day 1 (I voted and my side lost, and from that moment onward I saw no point in arguing about the result), I could probably have sorted out Brexit better than our present government ... but I suspect a lot of other people could have done that as well!

      All the best,

      Bob

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  3. A tremendously good 'take' on the role, Bob. There were several ways the game could have gone - a less assertive PM works just as well as an assertive one, of course. That said, your performance as a focussed and effective PM was felt throught the game with some very interesting effects. A very strong and stable government it seemed to me (apart from the secret Cabinet Plot to remove the 'warmongering' PM that is...)

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    1. Unknown,

      Cheers! Had I previously known and worked with the people I was going to have in my Cabinet - which I would have done in the real world - I could have been a lot less assertive, BUT if I had not started out by laying down the parameters I thought were necessary, I suspect that we (the government) would have been running to catch up from Turn 1 ... and the game would not have been half as interesting.

      A secret Cabinet plot to remove me? I'm not surprised that there might have been one (paranoia seems to be part of the job description!), and I would have been disappointed if some of my colleagues had not been plotting a change of leadership. That said, I suspect that my warning shot about a re-shuffle (I leaked the story to the media myself) might have given them pause for thought. Once the crisis with Russia was over, I would have expected a 'he's done such great service to the country over the past months, but doesn't he look tired' campaign to have begun. My reaction would have been 'Where's my peerage? Where's my contract to write a book about my time in politics? ... and point me towards the rubber chicken after-dinner speaking circuit'. No point in being a poor, elder statesman is there?

      All the best,

      Bob

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  4. An excellent report on what sounds like a wonderful game. I have some doubts about torturing people (but then I'm not in the hot seat).

    I hope that your hand is on the mend.

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    1. John Armatys,

      It was a very enjoyable experience.

      I agree with you regarding torture. The victims only tell you what they think that you want to hear. Properly staged and managed interrogation conducted over weeks and even months is far more productive. In game terms, however, I wanted to show my colleagues that I was prepared to be ruthless.

      My hand is much better today. It is still a but stuff, but most of the swelling has gone and the discomfort is at the mild rather than the painful end of the spectrum.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    2. Torturing? Tactical Questioning please...

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    3. Benjamin of Wight,

      In my defence, during the game I only used the term 'extreme measures' and not the 'T' word. I've got to have some small window to wriggle out of when I'm being questioned in the House or on NEWSNIGHT!

      All the best,

      Bob

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  5. Brilliant, Bob. You would have been magnificent. Your information extraction decision reminded me of a large multiplayer game I was involved with which saw us take a large number of prisoners. We could not feed ourselves let alone them, but to parole them would risk them joining the other enemy army closing in upon us. It was a game, but the high-minded civilian mentality I would normally espouse was seriously challenged, I can tell you!

    And that’s the beauty of the game, isn’t it?

    Cheers, Prime Minister!

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    1. Prufrock (Aaron),

      In game terms the decision made sense. It indicated to any of my colleagues who might have been wavering that I was prepared to be ruthless (and gave at least one of them a story to 'leak' to the media!) and to my opponents that I was prepared to go to any lengths to protect the UK. In both cases, it seemed to work to a degree.

      Years ago I took part in a leadership exercise where we were supposed to be a party of people who had been on an aircraft that crashed in the desert, We had just enough water and food to sustain us whilst we walked to safety, but during our journey one of the party was seriously injured. I decided to shoot him, much to the collective disgust of the rest of the party, who wanted to carry him. I left them to it, and set off with my share of the food, but left them the water as I knew how to use a plastic groundsheet, some stones, a cup, and a hole in the ground to collect water at night.

      Surprisingly, I was judged as having made it to safety and they were all adjudged to have died from exhaustion whilst carrying the deadweight of their injured colleague. It was a game, but the lessons it taught made you think.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  6. That does sound brilliant, well played. Top notch pulling off a high pressure role like that!

    Thinking back to the Tube incident, that Portsmouth based Spetsna unit might not have received the call-off command or went rogue!

    Glad you enjoyed it and I am looking forward to the presentations and audio ;)

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    1. Geordie an Exiled FoG,

      I suspect that if my Cabinet had been made up if WDers, things might have been even more interesting.

      If the person we ejected from the train had been Russian Special Forces, they would have seriously gone down in my estimation. He was at least my size and weight even if he was probably forty years younger than me. A bit of a bully who did not like being faced down by people who weren't prepared to be cowed by him.

      With luck the presentations will be available soon. In the meantime I'm waiting to see if my interview with someone from the BBC (a real media person rather than a game participant) makes it onto their news website.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  7. Well done Prime Minister!
    Perhaps I should fess up to placing those listening devices, on my own initiative... Anja vd Hulst and I bugged seven tables before the end of the initial briefing.
    Control did not give them any game function (we had spies wandering in and out of the room taking pictures)and i did not know if anyone would ever have found those little sticky notes... but obviously someone did!
    Certainly you acted appropriately, and we on the Red Team were a bit apprehensive because we weren't sure if it was due to the bugs or not.
    Anyway, it was a fantastic Connections.
    I am sorry we did not have time for more than a quick hello but perhaps next year.
    Meanwhile, I hope your hand heals well.

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    1. Brian Train,

      Cheers old chap! I wondered when the bugs were planted, but as soon as the one under the Cabinet table as found, we moved to the secure bunker. Following on so soon after the capture of the Russian Special Forces team in Portsmouth, I was convinced that I needed to send a message to the Russians that I was going to stand firm in the face of pressure. Incidentally, I asked my Culture Secretary if he could find a journalistic back-channel through which we could communicate with the Russians unofficially so that we could both find a way to pull back from what looked like becoming a dangerous situation.

      I had hoped to have a chat at some point during the conference, but it was not to be. Let's hope we can remedy that next year.

      Thanks for asking about my hand, which is much better than it was, the swelling has almost gone, and although my finger joints are still stiff, the discomfort is a nuisance rather than painful.

      All the best,

      Bob

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  8. And interesting report of the game on today's PM programme. Did you hear it, and what do you make of Radio 4's take on wargaming?

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    1. Edwin King,

      Thanks for the heads up! At present today's broadcast of PM is not available on catch-up. As soon as it is, I'll be listening to it.

      All the best,

      Bob

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    1. Tim Gow,

      Well said! I'm convinced and I'd vote for me as well!

      All the best,

      Bob

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