The Brexit Mess is in the UK’s political genes

Brexit Negotiation Errors

A Harvard Professor

In December 2018, Deepak Malhotra, a Harvard Business professor and expert on negotiation, wrote an interesting article in the New York Times opinion section: “I’m an expert on Negotations and I Have Some Advice for Theresa May”. He quoted his own article, written in 2016 not long after the Brexit Referendum, in which he addressed basic negotation errors and predicted what could happen next as a result:

“The EU might come to the conclusion that since any deal is going to fall short of the extreme promises made in the UK, it is not worth giving any special concessions at all. I hate to say it, but this is precisely where we are today.” [1]

His prediction was 100% accurate. In his 2018 letter to the editor he addresses May’s basic negotation errors: ignoring the ‘red lines’of her negotiations counterpart and “her refusal to manage expectations from the beginning”. Rather optimistically Malhotra concludes: “It may not be too late for the prime minister to rescue the negotiation process. But to do so, she must first stop negotiating like an agent and start negotiating like a mediator.” [1]

Winning is the Game – Losing is the Result

I tend to fully agree with Malhotra on this conclusion, but only on one condition: it only makes sense in case May and her government really want to negotiate based on a clear understanding of the need for negotiating. I am afraid this understanding is completely absent. Nothing in the development between the 2016 referendum and today is pointing at even the slightest sign of a willingness to negotiate. All the games point at one thing: winning. May has been fighting on many fronts: UK versus EU, Conservatives against Labour, May against hardliner Brexiteers, May against her Ministers and finally Government against Parliament. She has lost 99% of all fights, but still it is difficult to discover any real trend towards negotiation and consensus building.

My Dissertation (1987): I could not believe what I heard

Of course this is nothing unexpected. Reading about the unbelievable Brexit tragedy, I had to think about my dissertation (1987) for which I studied policy processes in both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. It was about the formation of energy policy, the use of technical and economic information and styles of negotiation. After studying our Dutch debates on nuclear energy, energy saving and low energy scenarios, I took the ferry to Harwich and travelled through the UK to interview key people in policy debates and policy formulation during the early 1980s. The questions in the UK policy debate were not too different from the questions discussed in the Netherlands. My ‘zero hypothesis’ for my UK interviews was that I would find processes in the UK similar to those in the Netherlands. No hypothesis could have been more naïve. In many interviews, I could not believe what I was hearing. Whereas in the Dutch debates there were continuous attempts at bridging divergent views and interpretations, the UK landscape of positions remained fragmented. In the Netherlands, relevant minority positions were taken seriously. In the UK, minority positions simply lost against majority positions.

British Style Majority Rule

In my dissertation, I wrote about the forecasts in the low energy debate:

“The British style in the low-energy debate caused a relatively fast institutinal reassessment of energy forecasts. … .. …. (T)he debate was highly effective. It could be effective because it did not entail extensive negotiation procedures involving powerful minorities, such as were seen in the Netherlands and in Western Germany. In this respect, the energy forecasting case is just an example of the effectiveness of majority rule politics versus the time-consuming procedures in countries which organize their political decision making on the basis of the proportionality principle.
On a different level however, this British style may prove highly ineffective, as it does not solve any of the underlying societal conflicts.” [2]

Negotiation Skills Deficiency Genes

Today, 32 years after I defended my dissertation, not too much has changed in the UK policy tradition. Governing by simple majorities is still in the UK’s political genes. It may still work in certain situations to a certain extent, but its limits are becoming painfully visible, not only because of the gradual breakdown of the UK two party system and the imminent crisis in the conservative party. Governing by simple majorities was not any realistic option after the Government lost its majority in parliament after May failed to win the 2017 elections, which were meant to strengthen her political basis.

Majority rule politics does not provide solutions for the UK’s complex policy issues today that intrinsically require superior negotiation skills, including skills for creating majorities in an increasingly fragmented political landscape. Such skills are scarce among the current elite.

Moreover, in the area of trade relations, skills that may have existed before the UK joined the EU are completely gone.  At the time of the Brexit decision, the UK did not have any trade negotiator. Already in 2017, the Norwegian prime minister said:

“We do feel that sometimes when we are discussing with Britain, that their speed is limited by the fact that it is such a long time since they have negotiated.” [3]

The UK has a political culture that does not foster negotiation skills. The present political elite is therefore completely incompetent to deal with their huge tasks ahead. In principle, the problem could be solved by sending all top politicians to a 10 day course with professor Malhotra at Harvard. But so long as the absence of elementary negotiation skills is not being recognized as a problem, this will remain sheer phantasy.

May 24: Exit May

Finally on May 24, May announced her exit. It was not surprise at all. Another scenario would not have been possible. It was clear from the outset, on the basis of a very small set of parameters that her strategy was bound to fail. In her own party, she did not have any majority of any plan that could have been accepted by other parties that were essential to create a majority. By moving into the direction of the radical Brexiteers, she would lose support from Labour and others. By moving into the direction of less radical voices in Labour and elsewhere, she would lose support in her own party. There was no other scenario possible. She should have resigned right after the 2017 elections or she should have chosen a completely different role from that moment on, a mediating role (see above) in which all responsibilities for the outcome of the negotations should have been transferred to the political parties. But,  in the UK context, this may be a far-fetched illusion.

Postscript December 2019: Boris wins

Boris Johnson’s ample majority has restored a situation that British politics can much better handle. Johnson has a majority now. Johnson can rule, and even deal with some dissidents within the Tory ranks. There is no need for complicated coalitions and negotations between British parties. It’s one party rule as usual again. However, the government will have to negotiate its relationships with the EU from the position of the weaker party. Negotation skills remain essential. 


[1] Deepak Malhotra, I’m an Expert on Negotiations, and I Have Some Advice for Theresa May. Maybe there’s still hope. NYT 20 Dec. 2018.

[2] R. de Man, Energy Forecasting and the Organization of the Policy Process, Disertation, Amsterdam 1987

[3] Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg says long membership of EU has left Britain without key skills for successful trade talks. The Guardian, 5 Jan. 2017,