Theresa May: PA

We are all supposed to be sympathetic to Mrs May. How many times have heard that ‘she got the best deal she could’? Or, ‘it was the best the EU would offer’ – usually linked to praise of her personal qualities of persistence, hard-work and diligence.

No, this is utter tosh from the ‘we were doomed from the start’ brigade. So what should have happened?

First, you always from the very beginning of any negotiation, plan for the need simply to walk away from the negotiating table. This means, do all the work necessary so you can cope if the talks fail. This could have happened. That it did not is at best straight-forward incompetence and bad planning. It should have begun the day after May came to power. That it did not must be her fault – or worse a deliberate self-sabotaging ploy because she has never and does not want to leave.

Secondly, having ensured that you have an ultimate ‘fall-back’ position, you set out your wish list. This is what in an ideal world you want. You do not for one moment believe you will get it but at least you know what you are asking for. You then table this as your starting position. It gives those on the other side of the table a clear understanding of how you see the world. Fairness and compromise have nothing to do with it – these may come later but, for now, you are not interested in the other side’s wish list but only in setting out your own first offer.

You then select the best possible negotiator(s): they have certain qualities: expertise in the subject and intelligence, of course, but also a combination of charm and strength of character and purpose, combined with a capacity for ruthlessness and the ability to ‘tough it out’. They are not frightened of silence or walking out of meetings or using clear words like ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

You then back these people to the hilt. What you absolutely not do is come up with an alternative plan without telling your negotiators, stab them in the back and display your own weakness and lack of clear purpose to those from whom they are trying to get the best deal.

You also probe for the other side’s weaknesses. In particular, when they say ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ you take them at their word – and make no prior commitments during the discussion – of any kind. Especially, you do not saddle yourself with promises about money, backstops or anything else. If they say that ‘sufficient progress’ has to be made on certain topics for discussions to continue, you inform them that they are contradicting their OWN doctrine and you walk away until they understand how absurd they are therefore being.
You play your winning cards. This may involve telling them things they do not wish to hear. For instance, that you are prepared to use your Permanent United Nations Security Council seat to block what they want at the UN if they are difficult with you. That if they insist on ‘no cherry-picking by you, it works both ways and they cannot have access to your security and intelligence services without a quid pro quo – and as you are amongst the best in the business with links they do not have – that means more than just access to theirs. Point out what they fear to acknowledge, that they – but not you – have a long vulnerable eastern border and, worse, are dependent on Russia for energy supplies. (Trump may be condemned as tactless but he was telling the truth!)

Meanwhile, all the time, you know that behind the scenes the plan to continue without a deal is taking shape giving you the confidence to give ‘no’ for an answer whenever this is required.

And, back all this up with public statements which honestly acknowledge difficulties, not pretending that everything in the garden is rosy when everybody knows that it isn’t.

Mrs May could have played it like this. She did not – with consequences we all know. But claiming no other deal is possible or that we stood no chance of better is, frankly, ludicrous.

There is a traditional military story about staff officers: two senior officers are discussing the requirements. They divide officers into the clever and stupid, the lazy and hardworking. They agree that the clever and hard-working are of course the most useful as they can always be relied upon to do a first class job; the clever but lazy are also useful as strategists, they take the time to think it through. They also agree they can cope with the lazy and stupid because if you give them precise orders, they will do the necessary minimum but absolutely nothing more. The officers that cannot be tolerated at any price and therefore must be got rid of are the fourth category, the stupid but hard-working. They will diligently do their best going way beyond what they are asked, indeed thinking they are being helpful whilst actually destroying the plan and bringing about catastrophe.

Guess which one of these categories a certain Oxford-educated vicar’s daughter brings to mind?

Unless of course, you take the uncharitable view that she is not stupid but because she is at heart a ‘remainer’, she deliberately set out to sabotage the negotiation from the start: that would surely make negligence criminal?

By guest writer – Mr Tony Brown