So it has come to an end. The Prime Minister, Theresa May has resigned having failed to get her Brexit deal through parliament. It became clear that her latest version of the deal had absolutely no chance of success; furthermore, she had lost the confidence of her MPs and, as a commentator put it earlier this week, the leader of any political party in a democracy leads their party only with the permission of its members.
For the first time in living memory, it is fair to say that a British prime minister has resigned because of a failure to negotiate an appropriate deal. Whether a deal to suit all colours of opinion was ever available is another matter altogether as I think any incoming prime minister, presumably from the Brexit wing of the conservative party is going to find out. Theresa May talked of the need to compromise in her resignation speech in Downing street on Friday last week and, to be fair, had she the benefit of Doctor Who’s Tardis three years ago, she might well have listened carefully to those words in her future before she set out all her “red lines”, called an unnecessary general election and refused steadfastly to involve just about anyone outside her own inner circle as she negotiated her ill-fated deal with the EU; the deal that the EU now says is non-negotiable.
Here’s the thing. Strip away all the personalities; forget the negotiating process itself; look at the deal in the cold light of a 52:48 referendum result and it suddenly begins to look as if it has the makings of a workable solution to the problem. Maintenance of close economic links but without the twin straitjackets of the common agricultural and common fisheries policies, nor indeed the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy.
But then there is Ireland – some might say that the backstop was the nail in the coffin, but the truth of the matter is that Ireland featured little in the Brexit debate three years ago; it was a non-issue – not even discussed except, obviously in Northern Ireland itself. Neither side in the debate seemed to spend much time thinking about the close north-south links that had been developed as part of the Good Friday agreement and that did so much to begin the healing process between all but the most ardent and extreme on both sides of the divide. How to square a circle?
And the ultimate irony in all of this was Mrs May’s ill-timed general election that removed her majority in the House of Commons and threw her to the wolves of the Democratic Unionist party, a group of MPs who do not even reflect the majority of opinion in Northern Ireland.
So – a failure to apply basic negotiating skills and it has come to this. How can the new prime minister move things forward?
- Early engagement in private talks before any public promises are made would be a start. And to your left, flying through the sky over there? That’s a flock of flying pigs. Careful now. It’s got you. Best get that cleaned.
- Early engagement with all sides of the House of Commons. You may need some votes from across the house
- Clear guiding principles that lead to…
- A clear set of realistic objectives
- As few “red lines” as is possible
- A credible threat – Boris Johnson, love him or hate him, has at least come out and not ruled “No Deal” off the table
- The flexibility to realise that to achieve some important goals, some less important goals may need to be traded off the table
- As little “blind faith” as possible and certainly keep any “triumphalism” down to muted whisper
- In terms of negotiating tactics – a lot of “just suppose” and “what ifs” might be a useful start