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Negotiating Brexit

With all the bluster and confusion over the UK Government’s Brexit negotiating approach, here are a few thoughts.

  1. Don’t start by shouting about getting the ‘best’ deal for your side. That makes it less likely you'll get any deal, and just puts the backs up of those you have to negotiate with. It may initially be helpful politically as red meat for your supporters, but it's counterproductive overall. Better to set your supporters’ expectations prudently in the first place, and then try to over-deliver for them. Circumstances will change as you negotiate anyway, so what you can achieve will evolve too. Government score: poor.

  2. Establish from the outset who controls the negotiations and makes the final decisions on your side. If the other side has multiple negotiators and decision-makers, although that does make them harder to engage with, it also enables you to keep focus while playing off the other sides’ competing agendas. Government score: poor.

  3. Carefully consider and then settle on your main realistic goals before going into battle. Keep them in mind throughout. These are your benchmark measures. Be prepared to compromise other things in order to achieve them. Don’t fight equally hard for everything. Government score: too soon to tell.

  4. Work out in advance the other side's main realistic goals. If you can't do that, then you're probably the wrong person to do the negotiating. Understanding your opponent is key. Government score: poor.

  5. Don't leave a vacuum. As soon as you’ve worked out your main goals, spell them out to the other side. If they reject them, then it's best to establish that from the get go, and sorting it out is your first negotiating priority. Often the maximum goodwill exists at the outset when both sides are set up to do a deal and before lengthy negotiating arguments have soured the atmosphere. Government score: poor, but improving.

  6. If the other side's main realistic goals are objectively inconsistent with yours, then recognise that quickly. Establish what other attractive opportunities could be available on either side instead and which were not initially identified - perhaps because they were not expected to be achievable; or because it turns out that one side doesn’t in fact value them as much as expected, or the other side more. If you can’t get the right answer, then change the question. Government score: too soon to tell.

  7. Be prepared to bundle apparently unconnected issues. Arguing again and again over the same thing will often get you nowhere. Be prepared to swap things you don’t really value for other things you do, even if they have nothing to do with each other. Government score: too soon to tell.

  8. Don’t waste time arguing about hypothetical unknowables. Often the negotiators cannot agree things because they relate to unknowable future circumstances or depend on actions by third parties. Defer judgements about those to arbitration or third-party expert decisions instead, and move on. Government score: too soon to tell.

  9. Build the best relationship you can with your opposite number. Create a situation where it's you and him/her fighting for the deal, and your negotiations are then - at least ostensibly - with your own respective sides, to persuade them to allow you both to agree a deal. If you've established both sides’ main realistic goals up front, then delivering those is your joint measure of success. Anything on top is a bonus. There will always be extra things that come up which you can share. Government score: poor.

  10. Where the deal is about establishing future relations between the negotiating parties, then the best deal for both sides is one with which both sides are genuinely happy. If one side feels bullied or tricked into agreeing something it really doesn’t like, then that aspect of the deal probably won’t work in practice, whatever the contract says. Government score: too soon to tell.

  11. If a deal has to be done and a happy compromise is simply not achievable, then agreeing an apparently bad deal can be a bridge to getting a better deal later. Lawyers spend a lot of their time agreeing what will happen if and when a contract is broken by one side, or if either or both sides decide they want out of it. It’s basically kicking the can down the road and, as mentioned before, circumstances change and unexpected solutions to apparently intractable problems can turn up. What initially looks like a bad deal can even turn out to have been a good idea. Just ask people who took out expensive long term floating rate loans before interest rates were unexpectedly slashed for the next decade. Government score: poor.

The Government’s Brexit negotiating tactics aren’t looking too good against these measures. Maybe they’re doing better behind the scenes, and perhaps they’re learning. Politics also has to be factored in: a Government has to stay in power to deliver any deal. But is it too much to hope that politicians will put practical outcomes ahead of short term headlines or populist opportunism? Probably.

 

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©2020, RICHARD HORWOOD