Making a Mess of Brexit – Gavin Devine writes for Housebuilder magazine

The article below is taken from the November edition of Housebuilder.

Newgate Communications chief executive Gavin Devine argues that the government is making a mess of the Brexit negotiations to the delight of the EU. It’s time, he says, for the government to get a grip.

As happens every year, the recent Party Conference season revealed much about the state of British politics.  Never mind that there may now be more Lib Dem members than Tories, Vince Cable’s first conference as leader felt like a sideshow, ignored by the media.  Labour had a tremendous jamboree, exhibiting discipline and enthusiasm and convincing many former sceptics that ‘magic money tree’ economics might just sweep them to power before too long.  And then there were the Conservatives…

Theresa May’s time in Manchester ended in a croaking whisper, with the stage falling to pieces behind her.  Cue predictable newspaper headlines about this being a metaphor for her premiership.  But the final speech will soon be forgotten – the real damage had been done before the PM stood up to speak by relentless speculation about two things Tories seem to be unable to shut up about: Boris and Brexit.

Boris’s motivations are so transparently obvious they don’t really need to be talked about.  More troubling is the Horlicks being made of the Brexit talks, which both fuels and flows from Tory leadership speculation.  In particular, the Government is only very belatedly – and then fairly half-heartedly – preparing the ground for a ‘no deal’ Brexit.  The timing of all this is astonishing.

After all, Negotiation 101 says that nobody should ever enter into a discussion about a deal that they are not prepared to walk away from – otherwise they will lose, every time. Having established what they think is the worst that can happen, and having estimated what the other side thinks is the least good possible outcome, they then should 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 did our politicians start the talks without embracing this reality?  What was their fallback position meant to be?

Many of the British political class have had plenty to say about what a ‘good’ Brexit looks like: like Norway, like Switzerland, like Canada, like something else. But until Theresa May finally made her ‘no deal’ speech in mid-October 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 and competition would be a tonic to the economy and a fillip to our productivity. Their ideological certainty means they fear little about the consequences of 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 who adopted Eurosceptic positions not out of conviction but out of a desire for petty political advantage. The lack of true believers really puts us at a huge weakness when it comes to negotiating. Everyone on the European side knows that the British Government – despite Mrs May’s speech and the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ mantra – actually can’t really 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. As I’ve mentioned, in Manchester there was a continuous drumbeat of discussion about is who was saying what about the Brexit talks and the position we must take, whether May should stay or go, what Boris might say next. The odds on the Prime Minister imposing discipline now look very long indeed.  So the Commission is presumably sniggering. 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? In the end, what possible incentive do the Europeans have to take the negotiations seriously?

This is a shame, in every way.  First, we are muffing up these vital negotiations.  Second, and arguably more importantly, we are allowing ourselves to be distracted from big political and economic issues that cannot really wait for two or more years of Brexit discussions: the housing crisis, which is disillusioning and disconnecting a generation from UK plc; the productivity crisis, which is holding us back globally; the rise of AI, which has big implications for the world of work.  Significant policy announcements at Conference, for example about investments in council housing, were drowned out by the incessant infighting.  We cannot go on like this: it is time for the Government to get a grip.

Follow Gavin on Twitter @gavindevine1234

Read the latest edition of Housebuilder magazine online here


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