Let’s explore this type of manoeuvring by looking at an example from the Game of Thrones world – if you want to avoid spoilers, then I’d suggest skipping the next seconds of this video and I’ll provide another example later.
Petyr Baelish is the only son of a very minor lord with only a few acres of land. In comparison to the key players in Westeros, Baelish starts with nothing. All he has is his sharp mind.
He does however get one gift – thanks to Petyr’s father making friends with his liege lord Hoster Tully. Petyr is fostered (raised) at Riverrun, by one of the 7 most powerful men in the country. Hoster Tully has 2 daughters and a son and unfortunately for Petyr, he falls in love with Catelyn Tully, eldest daughter. The feelings are reciprocated, not by Catelyn, but her younger sister Lysa.
It’s hinted that Petyr takes Lysa’s virginity and gets her pregnant, however her father forces her to abort the baby. Oddly he doesn’t show any animosity towards Petyr, so he may not know it’s Petyr’s child.
To forge a strong union with the North, Catelyn is promised to Brandon Stark, heir to Winterfell and future Warden of the North.
Brandon represents everything that Petyr isn’t – tall, strong and heir to a powerful title.
Petyr, in love with Catelyn, challenges Brandon to a duel in an effort to win Catelyn’s affections and hand in marriage. He is easily defeated and utterly humiliated when Catelyn has to beg with Brandon not to kill Petyr.
He’s then sent away by Hoster Tully and this is when Petyr’s scheming begins.
His goal, winning Catelyn and gaining power. His strategy and the tactics he uses to achieve this evolve over time and after each successive event another layer is revealed which makes his plans so much more impressive.
The next time we see him, he’s taken his father’s place as Lord Baelish used his intelligence to gain various promotions into the position of Master of Coin. His childhood sweetheart is married to the Warden of the North and Lysa is married to Hand of the King and Protector of the Vale.
He uses his influence over Lysa, who still lives him, to poison her husband which serves 2 purposes; it makes the King believe he is under that and therefore suspicious of his court and makes Lysa, Lady of the Vale, a widow.
Source: HBOs Game of Thrones
The King travels North to his trusted friend Ned Stark to appoint him Hand of the King.
Lysa, under Petyr’s instructions, sends a letter to her sister Catelyn explaining her fear that the Lannisters were behind the death of Jon Arryn. The Starks are now worried for the safety of the king as his Kingsguard and his wife are both Lannisters.
This develops as a genuine threat as when Bran Stark discovers the Queen and her brother Jaime Lannister’s incestuous relationship, Jaime pushes Bran out of a window. Ned leaves with the king and while he’s gone, an assassin attempts to kill Bran. Luckily for Bran, Catelyn is able to stop the attack and the assassin is overpowered. The dagger used by the assassin is very distinctive and Catelyn resolves to travel to the capitol and learn more.
She reaches the capitol before Ned and is greeted by Petyr who offers her a place to hide and informs her that the dagger was actually his, but lost in a bet to Tyrion Lannister – inspiring further distrust of the Lannisters.
Ned reaches the capitol and Petyr poses as a friend and ally, using his former friendship with Catelyn and his assistance to Catelyn as proof of his good intention.
On her way back to Winterfell, Catelyn bumps into Tyrion Lannister and takes him into her custody, taking him to the Eyrie to be judged by her sister Lysa Arryn. This wasn’t planned by Petyr but worked in his favour.
Source: HBOs Game of Thrones
He “assists” Ned in his quest to uncover Jon Arryn’s murderer and guides him toward a culprit and motivation. Ned discovers, through Petyr’s
guidance that the kings children are actually the product of incest between the Queen and her brother. Petyr hints that the Lannisters killed Jon Arryn because he discovered this when in fact they had no clue that Jon Arryn was investigating the possibility. Ned’s trust of the Lannister’s is pretty much none existent at this point.
This act inspires Jaime Lannister to attack Ned Stark in the street, killing a number of his guard and demanding Tyrion’s release.
Ned resolved to tell the king of his son’s true parentage. Petyr councils Ned to keep the fact to himself but Ned, knowing what the king would do to the children, warns the Queen of his plan to uncover the truth about her children to Robert and instructs her to leave the capitol as he doesn’t want their blood on his hands. Petyr gambled that Ned would never condone the murder of children regardless of his advice – we know this because earlier Ned refused to order the death of Daenerys Targaryan.
Before Ned can reveal the truth, Robert goes out hunting and is injured in an accident planned by Queen Cersei.
Shortly before Robert’s death, Ned is named Regent to rule until the Queen’s children come of age. Ned plans to support the King’s brother as true heir to the throne.
Source: HBOs Game of Thrones
Petyr agrees to help Ned, but secretly informs the Queen of Ned’s plans, knowing that it would likely result in Ned’s death. Petyr betrays Ned when he tries to enforce the king’s last order. Leading to Ned’s arrest and death.
Upon his father’s death, Robb Stark calls his banners and declares war on the Lannisters.
In a few months, Petyr single-handedly sparked a civil war with 4 claimants to the throne. This is just the first step in Petyr’s larger strategy.
Petyr brokers and alliance between the Lannisters and the Tyrells, culminating of the marriage between King Joffrey and Margaery Tyrell. For his role in this, he is rewarded by being made Lord of Harrenhal, elevating him from minor noble to important Lord in one stroke.
The marriage breaks off Sansa’s betrothal to Joffrey leaving her partially relieved until she is forced to marry Tyrion Lannister.
During this time she is befriended by Ser Dontos Hollard (an agent of Littlefingers) whose life she saved earlier and becomes close to Margaery Tyrell, who through the guise of friendship, obtains information about her future husband. Upon learning that Joffrey is a psychopath, Littlefinger and the Tyrell’s conspire to murder the King.
Ser Dontas gives Sansa a necklace to wear at Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding. This necklace was provided by Olenna Tyrell and contains a poisoned stone.
For the wedding, Littlefinger hires a group of performing dwarves, who are sure to anger Tyrion, whom Petry knows well enough to understand that his reaction will provoke visible tension and animosity between him and Joffrey.
When Joffrey insists that Tyrion pour his wine, the poisoned stone from the necklace is knocked into his cup, poisoning him. Due to the timing, Joffrey believes his uncle Tyrion is responsible and points him out at the culprit before he dies. Ser Dontas is on hand to quickly whisk Sansa away from the wedding, furthering suspicion on her husband Tyrion’s role.
With his new-found status, he is able to hand over his position as Master of Coin and marry Lysa Arryn, Lady Regent of the Vale. This gives him the perfect cover to both leave King’s Landing and enables his to smuggle Sansa away.
Not long after arriving at the Eyrie and marrying Lysa, Petry murders his new wife making his Lord Regent of the Vale and Lord Robert’s (Robin in the TV show) carer. Here the TV series and books split.
In the TV series, Petyr arranges a marriage between Sansa and Ramsey Bolton, thus cementing the Bolton’s position in the North. However, in the books, Petry is manipulating Sansa into a marriage with Harry Swift, future Lord of the Vale if Robin dies (which Littlefinger is sure to arrange). In both scenarios Littlefinger has Sansa’s confidence and is somewhat trusted by her.
Not bad for a minor lord with only a few acres of land. At the end of Season 5, Littlefinger is Lord of Harrenhal, Lord of Baelish Castle and acting Lord of the Vale and Warden of the East.
In the TV show, thanks to his role in Joffrey’s murder, he has an alliance with the Tryell’s and also an understanding with Warden of the North, Roose Bolton for brokering Sansa’s marriage. He also has the confidence of Queen-Regent Cersei Lannister by giving her information regarding Sansa and the Boltons. He offers to lead an army of Vale knights to retake Winterfell from the Boltons for their betrayal regarding Sansa. He also offers to kill Stannis Baratheon. Cersei promises to make him Warden of the North once Winterfell is taken and both the Boltons and Stannis are defeated.
Each alliance provides him with a contingency for the failure of another.
Littlefinger knows that the Boltons will likely defeat Stannis and then he can either wage war on them as promised, or through more political manoeuvring, achieve victory some other way. This frees him to marry Sansa (his ultimate goal) and with her beside him as a Stark and Lady of Winterfell, his position would be solidified.
Now THAT is a great example of strategy and political manoeuvring.