Whilst Conservative MPs try to present last week’s agreement with the EU as a success, the country knows the truth. This has been a catalogue of unforced errors of our negotiators own making.
Recently, I was lucky enough to visit the South African battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, where the British army in the same day suffered a crushing defeat and then a courageous victory against the same opponents in 1879. As the guides talked through the battles, I was struck by how good and bad decisions by leaders can have such profoundly different consequences, in such short order.
At Isandlwana, our inexperienced officers made all the basic military mistakes. They had the better weapons and the high ground. Yet they failed to properly assess the enemy, failed to set up proper communications, failed to use the right defence tactics of a laager rectangle and failed to have a fall back plan. The result was that they were wiped out. Then the British Army tried to cover up the true calamity.
Our negotiators in the EU talks since the summer likewise have made all the basic mistakes of negotiating. They had lots of ammunition and negotiating leverage. Yet they underestimated the other side, didn’t set a deadline to conclude talks, didn’t convince the EU that we would walk away, and kept negotiating against themselves by offering more and more without demanding enough in return, thus giving away our advantageous position. Furthermore, they allowed the EU to set a false split of items on the agenda, to progress from one phase to the next, contrary to the legal terms of Article 50. They didn’t even get the EU to come to London for every other round of talks, a basic negotiating courtesy in the world of business, or at least middle on neutral ground.
The result is that we have been wiped out so far, in terms of real negotiated results. We have agreed to pay a huge financial sum when none is legally due, without it being crystal-clear that this will only happen if we have an acceptable trade deal. We have not set a tight timeline for such a trade deal. We have allowed Ireland to do the EU’s dirty work on the Irish border issue, making it seem a much bigger issue than it is in reality. We will let the European Court of Justice to continue to meddle in some of our affairs for the medium term. We risk diluting or giving away the great Brexit opportunities: to deregulate unnecessary EU laws, to sign and implement trade deals with more dynamic, faster-growing nations, and to create a fair immigration system that protects our own people and economy. And yet our politicians are trying to cover it up as a good deal.
The only good news is that it’s not too late – though only just. The time for our own negotiators’ Rorke’s Drift is now. There, against seemingly impossible odds, our officers made the right calls in setting up the defences. The result was a stunning victory, based on incredible courage and smart leadership.
When things go wrong, in corporate or military life, it is normal to change the team at the top. There is a huge opportunity here to get on the front foot. The price of the Tory Brexiteer MPs support for the Prime Minister should be to change our negotiating team in the next few weeks.
David Davis should be thanked and moved upstairs into a non-executive style oversight role. Olly Robbins and Jeremy Heywood should be moved as far away as possible from these negotiations; they must bear a huge part of the responsibility for what has gone wrong. They should be replaced by committed Brexiteer politicians whose loyalties are not in doubt. The likes of Peter Lilley, Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Jones and Dominic Raab should be brought in to do both the detail and the negotiations. They have the courage, corporate experience and legal knowledge to make the right judgements and demonstrate strong leadership. Never again should we rely so heavily on civil servants for such a critical negotiation of the national interest.
Such a move would make the EU realise that we are not going to be pushed over, bullied or trapped into a bad deal. Such a move would bring confidence to our own supporters that we had the right people doing the job.