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Opening Statement

Robin Copland
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So what exactly happened yesterday in the House of Commons during the Prime Minister’s Brexit statement to the House of Commoms on 29 March?  People have either congratulated Theresa May or derided her along predictable lines, but I maintain that what was actually happening was that the UK delivered its opening statement for the upcoming and tortuous two-year negotiation with the EU.

Forget the 9 months leading up to this opening statement.  Forget the salvoes and the posturing. Forget the talk about “hard Brexit” and partnerships and access to the open market.  Forget them all.  Yesterday in parliament is where the negotiation proper started.  The prime minister stood at the dispatch box and laid out the UK’s position.  She outlined her long-term aims for the negotiations - the targets towards which she expects her negotiating teams to aim. 

I want this United Kingdom to emerge from this period of change stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than ever before.  I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country – a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead.

She also - and interestingly – presented this statement in a much more conciliatory tone than hitherto and was keen to present Brexit as an opportunity for both sides to develop their relationship.

A number of people have used this term of divorce. Actually, I prefer not to use the term of divorce from the European Union because very often when people get divorced they don’t have a very good relationship afterwards. Honourable members need to stop looking at this as simply coming out of the European Union and see the opportunity for building a new relationship with the European Union and that’s what we will be doing.

She was also keen to stress that the UK will be negotiating as the United Kingdom and she took the opportunity to reiterate that there will be no Scottish Indyref 2 this side of the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations.

It is important that we keep the union of the United Kingdom together. There is much that binds us and I do not want to see anybody doing constitutional game playing with the future of the United Kingdom.

As a piece of theatre, the mother of all parliaments delivered.  There was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond sitting right behind his leader as she delivered her statement.  He will be her prime political ally in the delivery of the funding.  Just along the front bench was her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.  The house was full and in good form.  When she talked about a liberal, democratic society, the Liberal Democrats in the house guffawed and basked in the limelight.  To be fair, they don’t get many chances to guffaw and bask in the limelight, so they made the most of it.

Are there lessons for negotiators generally?  I think there are

  • The one and only chance that a negotiator gets to make a planned statement, to create a good first impression is in a planned and rehearsed opening statement.
  • You can set the tone of the meeting
  • You can outline your broad goals
  • You can set out any points of principle as well as guiding principles
  • You can highlight what is and what is not negotiable
  • You can set the agenda.

I commend the value of a well-prepared and presented opening statement to the house…

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