Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 22 September 2018

Theresa May has qualities, but negotiation skill is not one of them

One of the important criteria I used in selecting posts for my new book out this November, The Lies we were Told, is that each chapter (collection of posts) must tell a coherent story. (It can be ordered at a 20% discount here, rising to 35% if you join the publisher’s mailing list.) So, for example, the chapter on austerity had to contain at least one post that covered each of the mistaken arguments made for rapid deficit reduction, as well as discussing the real reasons the government pursued this policy long after it was obviously damaging the economy.

Those criteria, plus the need to avoid writing too large a book, inevitably meant that I had to end my discussion of Brexit with the EU referendum. It is still impossible to say which of the many things I have written on Brexit after the referendum will be part of a coherent story and which will be tangential. But if I ever do have to select which posts were important, this talking about the qualities of Theresa May as a person would be one. The reason is largely because it contains this quote from a discussion by David Runciman in LRB of Rosa Prince’s biography of May.
“May didn’t do negotiation; in the words of Eric Pickles, one of her cabinet colleagues, she is not a ‘transactional’ politician. She takes a position and then she sticks to it, seeing it as a matter of principle that she delivers on what she has committed to. This doesn’t mean that she is a conviction politician. Often she arrives at a position reluctantly after much agonising – as home secretary she became notorious for being painfully slow to decide on matters over which she had personal authority. Many of the positions she adopts are ones she has inherited, seeing no option but to make good on other people’s promises. This has frequently brought her into conflict with the politicians from whom she inherited these commitments. By making fixed what her colleagues regarded as lines in the sand, she drove some of them mad.”
If you want to know why the Salzburg meeting was such a failure for her, you need only read this paragraph. May invests far too much in whatever plan she puts forward, and presents it as the only possible way forward. She is in that sense the embodiment of Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Alternative). She did that with her Chequers plan at Salzburg, and yet she is surprised that the EU showed no inclination to offer anything new as a counter proposal. Maybe the EU never will offer anything new, but you will never find out if you give no hint of flexibility yourself.

If being a hopeless negotiator is not bad enough, the last two years have also shown that whatever political knowledge she has does not extend beyond understanding how the Conservative party works. Her closest advisers, who she relies on a lot, may be little different. After she became Prime Minister she made a series of terrible decisions that have turned a bad situation for the UK into a terrible position. The most important of course was invoking Article 50 without any plan about what might happen next, for no better reason than the Brexiters were anxious people might change their minds. As I wrote in November 2016
“Anyone who actually wants a good deal from the EU when we leave should realise that the UK’s negotiating position becomes instantly weaker once Article 50 is triggered.”
There are plenty of other blunders: choosing a prominent Brexiter as her chief negotiator, fighting the need for parliamentary approval for triggering A50 in the courts, forcing Ivan Rogers out, her red lines and so on. Her focus on keeping the Conservative party together meant that she failed to understand and continues to fail to understand how the EU works. Above all else she has failed to see that the A50 process is less a negotiation and more like agreeing a terms of surrender.

Does this mean, as Stephen Bush among others suggest, that No Deal is a more likely outcome? In reality all Salzburg and May’s subsequent ‘statement to the people’ mean is more time has been lost. (The statement could mean nothing more than she has a party conference coming up.) As Martin Sandbu explains, there is concession the EU could make that is worth playing for, and that is extending the NI arrangement (in CU and SM for goods) to the rest of the UK. At the very least, she needs the EU to say in the Withdrawal Agreement that they would entertain some trade arrangement that negated the need for a border in the Irish Sea but fell short of staying in the complete single market. Unfortunately May’s lack of negotiating skills and knowledge means she is less likely to get either.

If she does not get those things, will she take the UK out with No Deal? As the quote from David Runciman suggests, many of the positions May adopts with apparent rigidity are inherited, and the EU referendum result is one of that type. She is not a conviction politician, and her primary interest is always going to be her survival. We can also take comfort in her knowledge of her own party, which means she must know her future lies with MPs who are not Brexiters. Enough of this group knows, to use Corbyn’s words, that no deal is not an option. They might tolerate May pretending it is as part of the negotiations, but they will do everything they can to stop her actually going through with it. May is useful, or indeed essential, to that group only so long as she does not give the Brexiters what they want, which is No Deal. All these things point to May being prepared, at the end of the day, to accept the backstop with just warm words from the EU on future arrangements.

If you still think May has recently drawn a line in the sand so deep that she couldn’t possibly cross it without falling, a good exercise would be to list all the other red lines she has drawn but then crossed over. If you doubt her capacity to survive come what may think of the 2017 election. But of course I may be mistaken. One of the nice things about the book was being able to look back at what I got right and got wrong using the device of postscripts. If I ever write up my best posts on events after the referendum two of my mistakes stand out: not understanding the key role Ireland would play until September 2017, and not seeing how May’s inevitable split with the Brexiters could change the dynamics on voting over any final deal. I hope a third mistake will not be in misjudging May’s character.


  1. " ... not understanding the key role Ireland would play until September 2017 ..."
    You were ahead of me. Checking back on my own blog, i was almost there in June 2017 but not quite - ahead of you - and only got the full picture in February 2018, well behind you though IIRC independently.

    Our slow-wittedness, typical of the British chattering class, is part of the fallout from the lack of a written constitution. The British constitution is a chimaera of conventions, Acts of Parliament formally indistinguishable from routine legislation, and key international agreements. Among the latter we must include the Good Friday agreements, and accession to the EU. It was never clearly presented to the electorate that the Brexit vote was about a fundamental change in the British constitution, on a par with abolishing the monarchy. Brexit also involved reopening the Good Friday Agreements, a very dangerous Pandora's box, not to mention the modus vivendi with Spain over Gibraltar. The Tories have now to choose between being Unionists and being neo-conservatives.

  2. Dear Professor, there is nothing to negotiate in Brexit. You want out, fine, go.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.