The predicament faced by the Prime Minister recently in the Brexit negotiations is a familiar one to experienced negotiators and those, like mediators, who work with them. At the time, it seemed a classic case of insufficient authority to complete a negotiated deal, underpinned by failure to ensure that all constituencies were on side before the final negotiations took place. As we move on, the transient nature of what was agreed becomes more apparent.

Having full authority to do a deal is important, as opposite numbers will be less confident to engage with someone they think is not in a position to conclude matters. If apparent or asserted authority is not translated into delivery at the crucial moment, a negotiator’s credibility can be easily undermined for the future. 

It is usually imperative for a lead negotiator, which one assumes is the Prime Minister’s role, to seek and unequivocally secure authority before commencement of crucial negotiations. If not, it’s vital to be able quickly to clear the decks during the discussions. Or, at the very least, to be clear about limits on authority. Such limitations will likely constrain discussions and should be avoided if possible. 

Adding undoubted complexity to the present situation are the many constituencies from which the Prime Minister must seek and gain authority. In a classic negotiation, authority may derive from an executive board, a group of trustees, a third party funder or the like. One would expect these constituencies to be fairly well aligned, or align-able. Here, though, the PM has multiple constituencies to please, with significantly and sometimes irreconcilably different objectives and needs. 

Good negotiators will work on the “victory speech” to be delivered to outside interests, so that those interests can be persuaded to go along with the deal proposed. Often, the two negotiating sides will work together to fashion and promote an arrangement that can be “sold” to the constituencies of their opposite numbers. This may have happened with the EU last week. But, as we see just days later, the PM will struggle in stage two to meet the needs of all of the DUP, the pro-Brexiteers, the devolved jurisdictions and unhappy soft- or no-Brexit Conservatives. Not to mention the Republic of Ireland which, like it or not, remains a crucial player. 

It’s a conundrum for sure. The UK Government’s approach must be to assess all possible solutions against the benchmark of the alternative to a final deal being done. What are the risks? What will really happen to the economy if there is “no deal”? What will happen at the border in Ireland? Will rebels really bring down the government? If so, then what? Is the future of the country more important than party interests? Difficult questions indeed, but they must be faced. 

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