Over the last few weeks we have all been treated to a lot of hoary nonsense about the idea of secret negotiations over our departure from the EU. It is time for people like Sajid Javid, David Davis, Jacob Rees Mogg and Theresa May to stop treating us all like idiots. No one has been this way before, but leaving the EU will be like every other International agreement that involves a large number of nations. The detailed elements of the negotiations will of course take place in rooms and buildings that are not open to the rest of us, but pretending we can send off the team to do the best they can without any sense of clarity about what our nation needs and wants is pure naivety. When negotiators are placed in a difficult position over something they want to achieve, there are broadly two possible strategies.
The first is to point to demands from a hidden group of directors that will mean that they will not go through with the deal if they don’t get their way. If all else fails the team will be forced to walk away and that is the end of the conversation. This approach is deeply risky if there is any prospect of some or all of the directors contradicting this line of thinking before the negotiation is concluded.
The second strategy is to refer to a publicised set of tough demands and offer to find a middle ground if the other side are prepared to give way on some of their requirements. When I was in my first full time role I worked for a company where I was elected to be a member of the Trade Union team. That is the strategy we adopted throughout. We got a clear set of demands from our members and then worked with the management to find a compromise.
The way that some of our politicians are speaking is as if they believe they are conducting a negotiation for a private organisation with a disciplined group of directors, rather than a nation of 45M adults, each of whom was entitled to vote as they wished. Had Cameron had a meaningful set of discussions with Parliament before he went off to hold exploratory talks with his EU colleagues, perhaps he would not have ended up dragging us out of the EU. However his vagueness and failure to communicate meant that he had very little negotiating power. If Theresa May pretends we are all of one mind, when she has publicly ignored the 650 MPs who make up our Parliament and failed to listen to any residents apart from a few who manufacture motor cars, that lie will be pointed out to her by 27 other Government leaders in no uncertain terms. A negotiator for a small number of investors can make all sorts of promises and threats, knowing full well that they will not spill the beans about their real views. The same cannot be said for a Cabinet of 30 ambitious people, a Parliament of 650 MPs or a Nation of 65M people. The fact that amongst the nation there are many hundreds of views about what we want in our departure from the EU is as well known to the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the other 27 nations as it is to Theresa May . What we need Parliament to do is not only debate the use of Clause 50 but to also place demands on the Prime Minister and her team that will make it seem as though her hands are tied and there is a clear way forward in our view that is going to make their job a challenge. That then will give her the best case she can have for a proper negotiation, where she comes back with some but perhaps not all we want. At present she will come back with whatever the lowest common denominator on offer from 27 nations is and her tenure as PM will not be a long one.