More negotiation lessons from Brexit...

The UK government continues to provide us with powerful lessons in how not to manage important negotiations. What went so terribly wrong on January 15, 2019… and what can we learn from it?

On January 15, Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with a crushing margin of 432 to 202. It was the worst parliamentary defeat for a government in recent British history. Her Brexit deal was rejected by 118 MPs of her own party – some in favour of Brexit, others keen to remain in the European Union. With 10 weeks left before Britain was scheduled to leave the EU, this defeat reflects a monumental negotiation failure.

What lessons can we draw from this train wreck?

Irrespective of the specifics, the most fundamental failure of the UK Government was not to manage their mandate negotiation effectively. As we repeat ad nauseam on the program:

for every important negotiation, you actually need to manage two negotiations.

The most important is the internal negotiation for a clear mandate. Once your mandate is clear, you know what you can say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to. The external negotiation to secure the deal is then the easy part. In the absence of a clear mandate, you could spend months negotiating a deal that your mandate holders then won’t accept — and that is exactly what happened.

Whilst the UK Government had a narrow mandate from the people to exit the EU, the true mandate holders are the members of parliament. They have the power to approve or veto the deal, and they were clearly not ‘on-side’ with the government’s position through the negotiations.

The fact that there is no consensus, even now, about what an acceptable Brexit deal might look like underscores the fundamental failing to manage the internal negotiation before engaging in the external negotiation with the EU.

Don’t start negotiating unless you have a clear mandate !

That’s not to say that all mandate holders are sensible. Sometimes your mandate holder will try to send you off with a mandate to achieve the impossible (an unachievable budget, an impossible timeline, an unrealistic deliverable, etc.). That makes a disciplined mandate negotiation more important, not less important.

Theresa May’s challenge is that some of those who voted against her deal want ‘soft’ borders for EU trade and tax where it suits them, but ‘hard’ borders for immigration, where it doesn’t. Likewise, the border issue of Northern Ireland is a vexed one. If there is a Brexit, there has to be an external border - either between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, or across the Irish Sea, with a special status for Northern Ireland. None of those two options are palatable – for very good reasons.

However, if you want Brexit and border sovereignty, there has to be a border. Parliamentarians have a difficult choice: choose to accept the least worst border option, cancel Brexit or exit without a deal. The one choice Theresa May could not afford is to let her mandate holders get away with not making a choice and leaving her without a specific mandate.

There is another lesson from this debacle:

Deal with the hairy beasts first !

A quick appraisal of the key challenges of Brexit will have flagged early that the Ireland border would be a key negotiation challenge. Gaining consensus on an acceptable - or at least acceptance of a ‘least worst’ - outcome was going to be key. Now that all of the terms of the deal have been painfully negotiated with the EU, opening-up a key issue and looking for concessions to fundamentally re-adjust how Brexit works is a task of superhuman proportions.

Instead of facing that task back in December, Theresa May delayed the Brexit vote until January. Perhaps she was hoping that with only 10 short weeks to go before Brexit, more of her parliamantarians might be cowed into voting for her deal, rather than risk the nuclear option of a disorderly exit.

As it turned out, she was wrong — and in the process has delivered another swift lesson for us all:

Strategy is part of preparation, but
not a replacement for sound preparation.

One of the most critical parts of your preparation is to have a clear understanding of what your mandate holder is expecting from the deal and what they will approve or reject.

Happy negotiating,

Matt Lohmeyer

Matt Lohmeyer