There is a general rule of international negotiations, which is to make sure you have sufficient domestic support to ensure whatever you agree with other countries is ratified at home. You therefore shouldn’t lose a vote in your own Parliament on an agreement you negotiated by a majority of 230 (and the follow-up, after clarifications, by 149). Perhaps it will be third time lucky, but for this article we focus on why it was defeated so heavily twice.
There are two clear reasons for the PM’s failure, the first the failure to build a degree of cross-party consensus around a realistic negotiating position, the second a failure of tactics arguably since the Brexit referendum vote in June 2016, but particularly since the publication of UK asks, known as the Chequers proposals, in July 2018. The PM and indeed a whole political system geared to party over country have yet to learn the lessons.
Failing to build consensus
It is not likely that the PM ever considered the need to build a cross-party consensus, despite the considerable evidence from other countries that international agreements tend to cut across party lines. Indeed on the morning of the first Brexit vote Chairman of the Conservative Party Brandon Lewis was reported as saying in Cabinet that the party would never wear reaching out to Labour. Such tribalism was possibly doomed from the start of negotiations, certainly once the PM lost her majority in the General Election of 2017, possibly even before given the deep differences of opinion on the EU between Conservative MPs.
Thus, from the start of negotiations it appears that the PM adopted an unrealistic negotiating position in the vain hope of maintaining conservative party unity. This had to be simultaneously a soft and hard Brexit, soft enough to maintain frictionless trade with the EU and no Irish border, while simultaneously hard enough to allow for an independent trade policy. Such a beast could never be deliverable in a negotiation with an EU for whom single market integrity is a key element, but arguably with any counter-party due to inherent contradiction. Therefore when the deal was delivered it was bound to disappoint some part of the party, but by being neither soft or hard Brexit, it managed to disappoint both sides.
It is worth briefly discussing the EU’s response to a UK with such an unrealistic negotiating position. Some commentators have criticised the EU for being too tough in defence of the indivisibility of the four freedoms or what was required to prevent border infrastructure in Ireland. The difficulty for the EU was the need to push back on a UK side that wouldn’t listen to their explanations as to why the UK couldn’t maintain rights without membership of the single market, including with regard to Ireland.
The first version of the Irish backstop, the guarantee of no border on the island of Ireland, was imbalanced in terms of treating Northern Ireland completely differently to the rest of the UK, a point that many including myself made strongly. The EU responded by adding a UK element of the backstop, in the form of a Customs Union, which was more balanced in terms of the delicate political situation. This went further than many expected, and indeed there were other elements of the Withdrawal Agreement that were also seen to show UK victories over the EU.
But a fundamental problem remained, which is that the UK side have never been able to explain convincingly how the absence of border infrastructure can be compatible with anything other than the closest possible economic relationship. So whether in the form of backstop or extendable transition period, this would be what is required until technology and associated processes have advanced considerably. The EU cannot be blamed for the UK’s failure to address this issue, and indeed within their own red lines tried to help again in the March meetings in Strasbourg.
Poor tactics by the UK Government
Those considering the failure of the UK Government’s Brexit negotiating approach tend to start with either the decision to trigger Article 50 in March 2017 without a plan, or the UK’s decision to accept EU sequencing of talks to start with Withdrawal issues that summer. Both are valid criticisms, and led to the UK accepting the Irish backstop in December 2017, and again in March 2018. However arguably the UK’s approach began to seriously unravel with the publication of their future plans, the Chequers proposals, in July 2018. These were supposed to overcome the need for the Irish backstop, but being based on the same unrealistic negotiating position discussed earlier could never be acceptable to the EU, while equally leading to the resignations of several Ministers including Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and David Davis as Secretary of State for Exiting the EU.
The UK Government’s unrealistic negotiating position then led to heavy Parliamentary defeats through a series of blunders dating back to last summer. First the Government launched a campaign at the start of summer to appeal to EU Member States over the heads of the Commission negotiating team, making this public in such a crass manner as to annoy all of them. The campaign was intended to deliver a good result for the Prime Minister at the Salzburg summit in September, instead EU leaders declared that her proposals would not work in an embarrassing rebuff.
Behind the scenes though negotiating teams continued technical work, and were reported by many to be on the verge of agreement when then DexEU Secretary Dominic Raab travelled to Brussels in October to tell Michel Barnier that there was to be no deal. It appeared that the PM had folded under pressure, but if she thought delay would help she was to be wrong not for the last time. When a substantively similar deal was announced in November, consisting of a binding Withdrawal Agreement and aspirational Political Declaration, Raab was among those to resign from the Government.
The rebellion was now growing inside the Conservative Party, and was allowed to grow further when the planned vote on the deal in December was pulled because the PM faced a heavy defeat. There were hopes that the Christmas break would focus the minds of MPs in favour of the deal, but this proved to be yet more wishful thinking.
The few weeks before the first vote saw some half-hearted efforts by the PM to reach out to other parties and a couple of Trade Union leaders, notably meeting MPs who had signed a letter opposing a no-deal Brexit, as well as arranging some briefings. Attendees reported however that the PM did not seriously engage, and continued to suggest that hers was the only deal possible. The same happened after the first heavy defeat, in a similarly half-hearted way. It became increasingly apparent that there was no intent of the PM to change course.
The Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ was at the heart of disagreements, with MPs unable to see how the UK could escape this without a close relationship with the EU, particularly if the EU were to be, probably rightly, sceptical about technology. Yet this masked a deeper problem, that the Political Declaration in particular was neither hard or soft Brexit, but a rather unlovely hybrid. The PM claimed this meant the UK had won. MPs rejected the PM’s deal twice because rather it seemed to put the UK in a parking lot pending future discussions, a situation equally offensive to those who wanted to leave and those who wanted to remain.
Lessons to be learned
It is not unusual for leaders to struggle to get the votes for international agreements. US Presidents traditionally struggle to summon the votes for trade agreements they negotiate, but they just about get the numbers. Incoming leaders have a habit of jettisoning agreements negotiated by their predecessors, as Donald Trump did for the Trans Pacific Partnership, but they have the excuse of not having been the negotiator.
This and future UK Governments must learn that it is not automatic that Parliament will support their Government’s agreements. To deliver this requires considerably more engagement with MPs, starting with the definition of clear and deliverable negotiating objectives, with support across parties sufficient to pass through Parliament when the moment comes. This can also help strengthen a negotiating hand, another lesson from others not implemented in the UK.
Bringing business and other stakeholders on board will also help, not least in ensuring a consistent message is delivered to the other side. It was a source of frustration to many of us on the UK side that when meeting Commission or Member State contacts we couldn’t help explain the UK position. The Government has to realise that negotiations do not just take place in the negotiating room, but in the many other contacts the two sides have.
The UK will soon have the chance to put these learning points into play, just as the EU learnt much from TTIP negotiations and implemented their learning in Brexit talks. This will either come in the negotiation of the relationship, if the deal passes, or potentially in the renegotiation of the Brexit deal if the UK requests a different kind of deal accompanied by a long extension. It is to be hoped that the second effort will be rather more successful than the first.