Tony Hughes 19 Sep 2018 12:39pm

What are Theresa May's Brexit negotiating tactics?

A consideration of the key challenges and tactics in play as the UK skirts closer to a Brexit finale

Theresa May
Caption: Prime minister Theresa May must convince the EU and its member states, along with some in her own party, that the Chequers Deal is the best deal

Chequers or No Deal?

On BBC’s Panorama this week, Theresa May made it clear that it has to be her Chequers Deal or no deal.

The reason May continues to push for this was made clear; the prime minister claimed there is simply no time to properly develop an alternative plan. Despite this, May’s biggest problem remains; in the most basic terms the EU offers non-negotiable terms for specific benefits. The UK wants these benefits, but isn’t willing to accept them under the terms proposed.

This is most visible when we look at freedom of movement. In return for access to the Single Market, the EU demands that partners must allow free movement of people. Something the UK has stated it won’t compromise on.

Stale mate

And herein lies a major issue. Both parties are stuck focussing on their needs and wants as opposed to negotiable areas that they can use to gain traction as part of a wider trade deal.
This is made all the more complex by disagreements on the Chequers Deal within UK politics and May’s ongoing task of convincing the EU and its member states that Chequers is the best solution for all.

In May’s mind Chequers is the only viable solution to this Single Market v freedom of movement juxtaposition and as such, we can see her now, more than ever, publicly pushing the deal in an attempt to ensure it floats when it’s presented to UK Parliament and the EU27.

What if the EU reject Chequers?

In some respects, May is right in her approach. Time truly is of the essence. Indeed, this week, Michel Barnier is meeting with the EU27, and May will be hoping that leaders will give a political push to Barnier to close a deal before the UK and EU Summit next month. Clearly, this is something that can’t be achieved if the Chequers Deal is scrapped at this late stage.

According to both Barnier and May, more than 80% of the deal has already been agreed upon, however, as we know, topics like access to the Single Market and how to progress with the Irish border are both contentious issues that have caused negotiations to reach deadlock multiple times.

Despite this, a second major challenge for May remains: pushing the deal through UK Parliament.

What should May’s next steps be when it comes to the negotiations?

Rather than scrapping an entire plan, or sticking to a plan that could result in a no deal, May should consider areas of flexibility within the existing deal that can be negotiated. Primarily, this should involve assessing exactly what it is that the EU is likely to gain and lose from the UK leaving, and using this as leverage.

Negotiations are about compromise for both parties and focusing the commentary on what is mutually beneficial is of the upmost importance.

To push Chequers through with relative ease, she should consider ‘sweeteners’ that can help soften the more challenging areas of the negotiation. This may mean weaving in elements that are likely to cause short term pain for long term gain, such as subsidising payments temporarily or allowing a phased approach to the restrictions put in place when it comes to Freedom of Movement. 

Regardless of the intricacies of the negotiation, it is vital that the language and verbal behaviour used from here on remains open and flexible in order to create the positive climate a successful negotiation needs.

How can May win the hearts and minds of the nation?

Despite all of this, May still has to have her plans passed by the UK Parliament, where everyone has an agenda and more so than usual in this case. And so, it’s up to May to ensure that the fundamentals of the proposed deal remain throughout the process and that ultimately, she unites the UK under the Chequers Deal.

Doing this is perhaps simpler than some might think. In this case May should stick to the facts; the Chequers Deal is a better alternative than a no deal. This was made clear through her BBC Panorama interview and should remain as a fixed narrative for the remainder of this process.

Whether people feel May is the person for the task, as she puts it “is at this stage irrelevant”, whether other politicians are playing games to further their own personal careers, remains also by the by.

What May must ensure over these critical few months is that her fixed narrative remains focused on the task in hand, which ultimately is to fulfil the public’s wishes by navigating the UK through the Brexit process in a way that is most beneficial to the UK.

Whether or not May can hold her nerve remains to be seen. But after all, she’s known for being a “bloody difficult woman”, so there may well be hope to secure a deal yet.

Tony Hughes is CEO at global negotiation skills training company, Huthwaite International