Veteran negotiator Jonathan Powell has had a hand in some of the most important deals in the UK’s recent history. He offers some Brexit wisdom to John Ashmore
With the small matter of the general election out of the way, Whitehall’s focus can now return to the looming prospect of Brexit negotiations – expected to last the best part of a decade and be the civil service’s biggest challenge since the second world war.
Widely acknowledged to have a deficit of expertise, the government could do with a negotiator of Jonathan Powell’s experience on its side. Powell was one of the great survivors of the New Labour years, staying as Tony Blair’s chief of staff from opposition all the way through to his departure from 10 Downing Street in 2007.
Down the years he has been at the heart of deals on the transfer of Hong Kong to China, the Good Friday Agreement and countless EU summits. But none of them comes close to the Brexit negotiations, which he describes as “the most complex, the most difficult, the most technically challenging” he’s ever seen.
He also sees Brexit dominating Whitehall’s domestic agenda well into the 2020s, too. “It’s like when you eat a very large lunch,” he says. “All the blood goes to your stomach and that’s what’s going to happen to the civil service, I can see it already. An awful lot of the departments are now focused on dealing with this great big problem and so obviously they can’t deal with the other problems – not just civil servants, but politicians too.
“You look at the Treasury and places like that, the vast majority of civil servants are working on Brexit-related issues and that’s going to be the case for, well, certainly the next two years. I would guess with the CFTA, the free trade agreement, it’s going to be another – who knows – somewhere between five and 10 years doing the same thing.
“There’s an opportunity cost, as in parliament, where legislation is going to be basically about changing our legislation to take hand of Brexit for the next 10 years and they won’t be able to do much new legislation on top of that.”
Powell has recently helped to establish the Brexit Exchange forum, a pan-European project to bring the voice of business and industry closer to the negotiations as a “neutral platform”.
“Government can look after its part, but what you need is a bottom-up approach, something that builds from the needs of business up to the negotiations,” he says.
“It’s incredibly important to business and to the country that the framework agreement doesn’t lead to a complete disjunction in regulation, in the way that business operates. So we need to get the input from business, not just from the civil service and from people in government.”
Without this sort of information exchange, Powell argues, bureaucrats risk making fatal errors as the talks unwind. “I think the real danger of this negotiation is things are done by mistake because the people doing the negotiation don’t actually understand how the auto industry works, how the pharma industry works. They make mistakes, and that’s where this can contribute.”
Businesses themselves also need to wise up to the scale of change a post-Brexit world will entail, he argues.
“Different sectors are in different stages of preparation – it’s clear for example that the financial services sector is zooming ahead and they’re already talking about moving people out of London to be on the safe side. But quite a lot of the other sectors in Britain and perhaps particularly in Europe aren’t really prepared for this, this isn’t very high up their agenda and they’re suddenly going to be surprised by it when the negotiations start properly in the autumn after the German elections.”
When it comes down to the work of negotiating, Powell reckons our civil servants and politicians could do worse than heed the words of boxing legend Mike Tyson, who once observed “everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth”.
“I think it’s going to get very, very complicated because a negotiation is with other people, you have to make compromises, it’s not where you go along and make a series of policy decisions and those are implemented,” he says.
“The hardest negotiations are on your own side. The biggest challenge for Hong Kong was negotiating with Mrs Thatcher and the executive council. The Chinese were relatively easy”
The problem, says Powell, is that as soon as team UK engages with “the enemy”, its negotiating strategy is going to collapse, which is where the Tyson analogy emerges. “The danger, I’ve noticed, in negotiations during my lifetime, is that you can get the most perfectly prepared position but you’re not at all prepared for actually engaging with the other side,” he cautions. “You sort of think, ‘we’ve had difficulty negotiating this position, we can’t possibly change it’, when you meet the other side it’s going to be even more difficult.
“One of the most challenging bits of this negotiation is you’re dealing with 27 other countries. It’s incredibly difficult for the 27 to agree and once they’ve agreed it’s going to be incredibly difficult for them to change their position and that’s going to be one of the real challenges from this.”
So what is his advice?
“The first thing you need is to really get some European expertise in from outside…I would be bringing back some of the old lags who really have done these sort of negotiations in the past to beef up [the] team,” he says. “Secondly, I would really try and work out what my bottom lines are. In negotiating jargon, academics talk about BATNA – Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It’s all very well people saying no agreement is fine – it isn’t. It would be absolutely catastrophic, and that’s one of the things that business will tell you if you talk to them.”
What, if any, are the UK’s strengths going into these talks? Again, Powell invokes a martial metaphor.
“I actually think, funnily enough, our negotiating strength may be our weakness. In other words, because we’re weak that gives us a certain amount of strength, people do understand there are certain things a British prime minister is not going to be able to agree to, and that’s where they’ll have to sort of come to terms themselves.
“Sometimes there’s a sort of ju-jitsu in negotiations – if you’re actually weak you can turn that into a strength. That’s probably our best hope.”
To outsiders, the sheer physical strain of the negotiations might seem baffling, with crucial decisions made when the participants are weary to the point of incoherence.
One of the more striking details of David Cameron’s ill-fated 2016 EU negotiations was his team powering through the night fuelled only by endless bags of Haribo confectionery.
But Powell argues that the threat of failure is the thing that expedites these talks to the point that some sort of agreement is possible.
“What builds tension in a negotiation is the deadline, it’s when you start bumping up against the deadline that things get really heated, difficult, and people get exhausted,” he says. “When we did the Good Friday Agreement we had three days and nights without sleep when we were negotiating the last bit of it. That’s when people start hallucinating and that’s also when you make compromises.
“There’s a reason that all European Councils go through the night. We used to always say when we went to European Council ‘is this a one shirt, two shirt or three shirt negotiation?’ It’s that question of the deadline, because that’s what forces people into decisions.”
He also suggests the UK team would do well to check their counterparts’ dietary habits.
“When we used to negotiate with Helmut Kohl when he was German chancellor we’d make the negotiations start just before lunchtime,” he says. “We knew he’d get really anxious about his lunch fairly early on and you could actually get to a compromise.”
Powell’s experience in both Hong Kong and Northern Ireland suggests home-team political wrangles often prove more difficult than any clashes with the other side of the negotiation. “My mentor when I was doing the Hong Kong negotiation back in the early 1980s was Sir Percy Cradock,” says Powell. “He said Cradock’s First Law of Diplomacy is the hardest negotiations are on your own side. When we were doing the Hong Kong negotiations his biggest challenge was negotiating with Mrs Thatcher, negotiating with ExCo, the executive council in Hong Kong. The Chinese were relatively easy by comparison.”
Powell says Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, with whom the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, had made a similar observation – that “negotiating with your own band is always the hardest thing to do”.
It could be the case that the government’s most difficult negotiations will be with Tory backbenchers, different Whitehall departments, different ministers and the British public, Powell says, adding that the opinion-shaping power of the UK press should also not be underestimated. “I know from experience in No 10 that it is very hard with the British media, particularly the Daily Mail and The Sun. They like to have a good fight with the Europeans and they’re going to want to keep the fight going all the way through, which will make the job much more difficult.”
As for the substance of the negotiations, Powell is concerned about the future of Northern Ireland.
Following last year’s referendum, Theresa May responded to the border question by pointing out that a Common Travel Area existed before the EU, which does not get around the fact that the Republic of Ireland and the UK will soon have materially different immigration and customs arrangements. The question, then, is whether to bring in customs checks on the border, or between the island of Ireland and the British Isles.
Powell thinks hardening the border in any way will raise serious questions of identity that could exacerbate the existing political tensions in the province.
“The basis of the Good Friday Agreement was people in the North could be Irish, could be British, could be both and were free to have their identity,” he says. “They could paint their kerbstones with the tricolour or paint their kerbstones red, white and blue. If you start breaking that up by making the border mean something, it’s very hard to get backwards and forwards across it, then that will undermine the whole basis of the Good Friday Agreement.”
One of the strangest effects of the Brexit vote, he adds, might be to make Unionists reconsider the idea of a united Ireland if it means they can stay in the EU. “What you seem to have now in the North – and I wouldn’t exaggerate it – is a feeling among many Unionists, middle-class Unionists in particular, who voted against Brexit, that actually when they come to look at this now maybe it’s not such a great idea for their economic interests to stay out of the Republic of Ireland if the Republic of Ireland is going to be in the EU and the Single Market and they’d be out.
“You actually hear people in rugby clubs and golf clubs talking about this, which you never had before and if you think about the percentage that voted against Brexit, that wasn’t a Catholic vote, that was a Protestant vote as well as a Catholic vote.”
“When we used to negotiate with German chancellor Helmut we’d start just before lunchtime – we knew he’d get really anxious about his lunch fairly early on and you could get to a compromise”
The prospect of a referendum on Irish unity, once the stuff of Republican fantasy, now seems that little bit more real.
“By the Good Friday Agreement we closed down the idea of a united Ireland at least for a generation and now Brexit’s opened it up,” he says. “We tried to make Northern Ireland boring and the trouble with Brexit is it’s going to make it interesting again.”
If “interesting” is shorthand for turbulent, difficult and exhausting, Whitehall and its political masters are certainly in for an extremely interesting few years in Brussels.