Dave Penman: Don’t blame civil servants if Brexit talks collapse

If the UK’s negotiations to leave the European Union are at risk of bombing, it is down to the political uncertainty, not officials working in difficult circumstances

Brexit secretary David Davis (L) and the European chief negotiator for the United Kingdom Exiting the European Union Michel Barnier talk to media after Brexit negotiations. Photo: Monasse Thierry/PA Images

By Dave Penman

15 Nov 2017

Famous set piece international negotiations almost inevitably end up being dramatised. Oslo is currently playing in London, dramatising the negotiations that led to the PLO-Israeli peace accords. Perhaps the one to be written around our Brexit negotiations will be called Slough – just a bit shit.

Barely a day goes by now that we don’t hear a new revelation or political spat associated with Brexit. I sense that if there was a new referendum now, a “please just shut up and get on with it” option would triumph.

There are a lot of myths around about how negotiations work, mainly from those whose main achievement has been a 5 euro reduction in the price of the hand carved chess set they bought from “that little market tucked away from the main tourist trail that only locals go to”.


The reality is that whilst there is a skill to negotiations, the outcome is determined by the power dynamic that sits outside of the room.

When I negotiate on behalf of FDA members, it is the power associated with gaining their consent, not my tub thumping, that determines the outcome. And so, for all the talk of Brexit negotiations and what happens when Jean-Claude Juncker meets David Davis, the biggest influence on the outcome is how each side judges the position of the final decision makers.

When prime minister Theresa May said “no deal was better than a bad deal”, she was right.

In any negotiation you need to be prepared for the ultimate sanction. You can’t negotiate from a position that you’re prepared to do any deal. “No deal” has consequences for both sides and, while some will argue those consequences are greater for the UK, it’s clear that “no deal” would also be disruptive to the EU27.

This is all good and well if it looks like it is part of a consistent and tough negotiating stance. You know clearly what you want to achieve and what you’re prepared to give up – it is, after all, a negotiation.

But of course, that is not where we are now. Politicians, in government and outside, undermine our negotiating position on an almost daily basis. If a deal is to be struck, then each side has to have faith that it will stick. Who can honestly say that this is how our government’s position would currently be judged? The astonishing lack of discipline among cabinet members, the constant jostling for position from those who prioritise self-interest above national interest, and now the lack of clarity on the role of Parliament.

With each new revelation, gaff, correction, or quote in the Sunday papers, the political class that are supposed to be steering us through this process fatally undermine those who are tasked with trying to achieve the best outcome possible. It is quite the achievement that a collective made up of 27 sovereign states can look more unified than a single government made up from one political party.

And so, as we stumble along the path to our self-imposed deadline of March 2019, like a drunk hopelessly looking for cab home on a rainy Friday night, “no deal” looks increasingly like a self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than a choice. As the reality of the complexities of our exit dawn on those who championed it, they retrofit an argument that “no deal” is actually the preference.

Judgements, closely followed by preparations, are already being made on this scenario. Whether that is individuals pondering where they will be allowed to live and work, companies understanding how this may impact on their ability to trade, or governments planning for how our future relationships will function. Even if a deal is still possible, irreversible decisions will already have been taken that will be damaging for individuals and the country.

Increasingly, the finger of blame is being pointed at those tasked with delivering these negotiations. Individuals have been targeted and attacked by pro-Brexit elements in the press. Civil servants just need to embrace the new “orthodoxy” and all will be well, as implied the chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, who should know better.

But neither is it right to suggest, as David Walker did in The Guardian, that “hapless officials in DExEU” are simply keeping careful notes to make clear to any future enquiry that they were only following orders.

Civil servants are getting on with the herculean task of trying to deliver the best possible outcome for the UK. That’s what the civil service does. That they and we are being let down so spectacularly by the elected politicians will hardly be a surprise ending to the Slough drama.

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