The Art Of The Deal: How Not To Negotiate Brexit

This blog originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

In recent weeks the British media has been full of stories about how we need to be ready for a ‘no deal’ Brexit. With the talks stuttering along, at best, one senior Conservative politician after another has emerged to intone solemnly on the subject and prepare us all for the worst. On the one hand this seems like a wise precaution. On the other, it seems breathtakingly, painfully, bleeding obvious.

This, after all, is Negotiation 101. Nobody should ever enter into a discussion about a deal that they are not prepared to walk away from – otherwise you will lose, every time. Having established what you think is the worst that can happen, and having estimated what the other side thinks is the least good possible outcome, you then try to reach an amicable compromise in the middle. This is simple stuff, something that most people do pretty much reflexively every day: when they are agreeing a new job contract, arguing with their broadband provider, signing up a new client at work, all the time. Why are politicians acting like this is so different?

Many of the British political class have plenty to say about what a ‘good’ Brexit looks like: like Norway, like Switzerland, like Canada, like something else. But far too few have much to say about the ‘no deal’ scenario. In fairness, the most head-banging Brexiteers have talked about this from the start, in large part because a lot of them see it as the preferred option. In their eyes, let’s just get on with it: a dose of unbridled freedom would be a tonic to the economy. Their ideological certainty means they have nothing to fear from crashing out of the Union.

Yet these are not the people negotiating with Barnier et al. The Government is filled with pragmatists and sensible people, many of whom were at best lukewarm about leaving – or adopted Eurosceptic positions not out of conviction but out of a desire for petty political advantage. The lack of true believers puts us at a huge weakness. The Europeans know that the Government – despite the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ mantra – really can’t imagine walking away. British dithering is then magnified by two other failures to follow Negotiation 101. First, never let the other side see you are divided. Second, agree what you’re asking for and stick to it, come what may. And the Tories can’t do either of these really basic things.

In fact, senior Conservatives just can’t stop fighting, in public. I’m in Manchester right now and all anyone is talking about is who is saying what about Brexit, whether May will stay or go, what Boris is going to say next. If you’re the Commission you must be laughing. Why not leave the British to squabble amongst themselves, let the March 2019 deadline get closer and closer, and then force through an advantageous deal at the last minute? What possible incentive do the Europeans have to take the negotiations seriously? Why would they treat us with respect? We are proving ourselves to be incompetent and idiotic. We deserve what we will get.

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