Tom Lees: Five Brexit negotiating lessons for Theresa May

AS politicians swap Westminster for a summer of more mundane duties back in their constituencies '“ from ribbon-cutting at new supermarkets to pointing indignantly at potholes '“ the Prime Minister is showing us the true meaning of resilience, spending her summer trying to sell the Chequers deal. To someone. Anyone.

Can Theresa May chance tack on Brexit?
Can Theresa May chance tack on Brexit?

The Conservatives are behind Labour in the polls and the long-thought-dead Ukip corpse is breathing again. YouGov recorded the lowest approval ratings ever for the Prime Minister, with nearly four out of five northerners thinking her proposals are a bad deal – even before further compromises are made.

Most Leavers and Remainers wanted something simple: to implement the result of the referendum. With confidence, leadership, statesmanship and vision.

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Instead, we have seen a repeated refusal to make any decisions. And the few decisions that have been made have included fatal errors which have led to the current pyrrhic ‘deal’.

Some of the flaws are so basic that we would all know not to do them if we were haggling for a new home or car. Here are five of the major ones.

First, we allowed ourselves to be bullied and patronised. Accepting the EU’s timetable for negotiating and being rushed into triggering Article 50 before real preparations had been done at home forced us to agree the £40bn divorce bill and a backstop plan for the Northern Ireland border out of logical order.

Before we know what we get in return! How can you discuss goods crossing the border before we have agreed our trading relationship? It is like offering the full asking price on a home before you have even seen it.

Second, by accepting a backstop on Northern Ireland and the Chancellor previously indicating we will cough up the cash no matter what, the EU knows it can get £40bn of our money (enough to fund the entire education budget for a year) no matter how unreasonably they behave. While forcing us to remain in the single market and customs union indefinitely if no deal is reached. The EU bureaucrat’s version of Hotel California – we can check out, but never leave.

Third, the EU was expecting us to put forward a comprehensive free trade agreement early on. In fact, the EU Council president Donald Tusk said as much in March this year. We should have put something forward that matched the current benefits, but without the cost, unlimited immigration, inability to do trade deals and loss of sovereignty.

This would have been rejected by the EU. Only idiots accept a first offer. But it would have pushed into the open their uncompromising and bolshie attitude while allowing us to start from a stronger negotiating position that reflects where most want us to end up. Remember we import more goods from the EU than we export.

The fourth mistake is perhaps the most bizarre. The UK Government achieved something fantastic. They managed to persuade the ‘superstar’ trade negotiator Crawford Falconer to come 20,000 miles from New Zealand to the Department for International Trade. He is a former ambassador to the World Trade Organisation and has actually worked on successful trade deals.

The biggest deal we are negotiating is with the EU. Crawford is right at the centre fighting on our behalf, right? Wrong. We hired Joe Root, left him out of the team and sent in Eddie the Eagle.

The Prime Minister chose Olly Robbins instead. A man with absolutely no experience of negotiating trade deals, but a lifelong career as a civil servant jumping from department to department.

Finally, the most critical factor of any negotiation is a willingness to walk away. Unless you can walk away the other side will always have the upper hand. Until recently, no serious planning has been done for a situation where we fall back to World Trade Organisation rules.

This would mean exporters have to pay the EU’s Common External Tariff, which averages four per cent on goods. Not the end of the world.

The trickier element would be ‘non-tariff’ barriers, for example, checks on whether our goods meet EU standards, which would bring some delays at the border. However, the doomsday talk about shortages of food, fuel and medicines is wacky and designed to scare. Not even Qatar, who is being blockaded by its neighbours, faces the nightmare some suggest. And we could use our £40bn divorce payment to soften any short-term blow.

Theresa May has been paralysed by lack of vision, fear of change and establishment treacle.

The summer break is a chance for the PM to reset. Learn from these mistakes. Change tack. Acknowledge the Olly Robbins ‘deal’ is doomed and put forward a more positive vision which respects the outcome of the referendum. Behind the scenes the Government already has a full draft free trade agreement ready to go.

The question is whether the Prime Minister is bold enough to take decisive action to stop the damage and regain the upper hand.

Tom Lees is a Yorkshire-based political commentator.