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EU negotiations: has Boris already succeeded where Theresa May failed?

Written by Neil Clothier on Monday, 29 July 2019. Posted in Politics, Analysis

After a media-fuelled leadership election, bookies favourite Boris Johnson has been crowned the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It’s fair to say the leadership election and his subsequent Premiership will be judged by the success of Brexit.

EU negotiations: has Boris already succeeded where Theresa May failed?
However, after sailing past both the original deadline and the extension, the UK is in a pit of uncertainty and negotiations with Europe and the UK MP’s at a standstill. With a working majority of one MP, Boris has quite the task ahead of him. 
 
It is now more difficult than ever to predict how, and even if, the UK will negotiate its way out of the European Union on 31st October. The complexity of the situation only deepens as choices are slowly rebutted and removed; the UK Parliament has made it clear that a no deal will not pass and most recently removed any possibility of shutting down Parliament in an effort to bypass MPs when seeking a no deal. 
 
No deal – a credible ‘fall back’? 
 
However, it’s possible that Boris may already have made more progress than May when it comes to Brexit negotiations. 
A key area of Boris’ leadership campaign was his focus on his willingness to pursue a ‘no deal’, despite the Bank of England, hundreds of businesses and the Government’s own reports saying that a no deal would be the worst possible outcome. This approach may in fact have strengthened his hand. 

Under May’s leadership, it was always clear that a ‘no deal’ simply wasn’t a credible fall-back that had been fully examined, evaluated, refined and accepted by key stakeholders – hence the removal of this option from the negotiations process. This – perhaps unwittingly for the UK – gave the EU the upper hand.

To put that into context, a true fall-back plan is to have a potential, or even better, alternative up your sleeve to use to replace the deal currently under discussions outside of a negotiation. You are only as powerful in negotiation as your fall-back strategy, and the more fall-backs you have is directly proportional to the negotiating power you can potentially harness. 
A major rule of negotiation is to try to fully understand the consequences of an alternative and, where possible, try to improve your fall-backs and therefore improve your negotiating stance. If you have no alternative to fall back on, and the other party knows it, you’re unlikely to get a good deal. Without bringing up credible alternatives, the UK had no option but to accept what the European Union offered.  

Given Boris spent his leadership campaign not only confirming that he would proceed with a no deal but actively talking about the benefits of this, things have now changed as far as the EU is concerned. He spoke so much about no deal and what the UK will do to manage a no deal if it is needed then this version of potential events has arguably become credible in the eyes of the EU.  
This has not only put no deal back on the table but it has made it a credible option in the eyes of the EU. The result of which has led to the media reporting that a number of European Governments have already contacted Boris and his allies to discuss the withdrawal agreement and what can be done to come to a mutually beneficial agreement. This arguably leaves the UK with a stronger negotiating hand. 
The impact of delayed negotiation and time pressures
 
Clearly however, a deal is always the preferred outcome for both Boris and the EU. There have been a number of experts and analysts who have explained how EU negotiations work, stating that the EU will wait until the very last minute before offering a substantial concession, allowing the deal to pass.

The argument is that Boris and his team should hold their nerve, watch the clock as it continues to run down, and wait for this miraculous concession. However, this tactic didn’t work for David Cameron in 2015 when trying to get a better deal from the EU to persuade the British public to remain in the European Union, it didn’t work for May as the original deadline became ever closer with no sense of an agreement from her MPs. 

So why is Boris now insisting he will meet the 31st October deadline come hell or high water? 
From a negotiation perspective, this approach could achieve two things. First of all, in a negotiation, a finite deadline also places pressure on the other negotiating party, in this case the EU. Despite what they may publicly say, they will undoubtedly be planning concessions or contingencies behind-the-scenes.

Secondly, Boris’ seemingly blithe insistence on leaving Europe by this date lends credibility to a no-deal, which again places even more pressure on the EU to reach an agreement. 

A factor that weakened May’s hand was the need for her to constantly go back to Parliament to be told ‘no’ – something that was akin to seeking permission from our parents to stay out later than we usually do and being told no, then having to tell our friends the bad news. It didn’t fill the country, electorate or indeed the EU’s negotiators, full of confidence that the UK Prime Minister is strong, stable, in control and to be taken seriously.

Boris’ Cabinet clear out, however, may mean this problem does not arise, and may be another positive move when it comes to securing a deal. 
However, no matter the outcome of a deal or no-deal, the very real time pressures still exist and this is an issue that Boris will have to answer. If indeed he decides to progress with no deal, the Government will have little time between now and 31st October to negotiate with its future customers and suppliers to ratify a credible alternative to replace the business the UK holds currently, with the EU under favourable terms. 

As a result of no deal, some deals, where the UK will revert to WTO terms, will become costly, unprofitable, restrictive and uncompetitive. The Government will therefore need a strategy of transferring or replacing contracts and the question arises: regardless of the negotiation skill on display, will three months be enough?  
Whether Boris’ strategies turn out to be mere empty rhetoric, or a masterclass in negotiation remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure, by Halloween we will know.


About the Author

Neil Clothier

Neil Clothier

Neil Clothier, Head of Negotiations at Huthwaite International, a leading global provider of sales and negotiation skills, has worked in the business for over 20 years. Neil is an experienced Business Development Manager in the professional training & coaching industry. As well as being a strong sales professional, Neil is skilled in negotiation, performance improvement, business planning, coaching, and sales.

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