Dublin beware! The fox and the lion are on the prowl


One headline reported on a last Sunday morning newspaper read, Theresa May leaves diplomats in ‘disbelief’ after presenting EU leaders with unchanged Brexit demands”. Incredible, you may think after the enormous and indeed, historical, defeat she had suffered in the House of Commons during the week. But is it really incredible or is it just part of a master plan to get Mrs May’s deal over the line?

After her historical parliamentary defeat, we were told she was inviting other parliamentarians to No. 10 Downing Street to listen to their points of view. This famously uncommunicative, secretive woman had actually decided publically to listen to what others have to say! But was it like that? One Civil Servant is reported as saying, “It was like talking to a brick wall; you get nothing back”. The widely respected Labour politician, Hilary Benn, for example, observes the PM’s attitude appears to be “The door is open but my mind is closed”. Parliamentarians are invited in, she listens, even offers tea, and ten minutes later she thanks you, and you are on your way out. So this morning’s headlines didn’t really surprise anyone. She heard what invitees had to say, but nothing else.

All the commentators have given us a huge number of possible alternatives to Mrs May’s deal, but each of these requires a degree of political persuasion on the part of Mrs May. But persuasion seems not to be part of Mrs May’s skills set.  By definition, persuasion is interactive; it needs two parties, and attempts to satisfy the needs of both parties, although not in equal proportions. The essential thing is that persuasion is something one does with someone and not to someone.

So what should we have expected from Mrs May, given what we know of her? Persuasion would normally involve Mrs May endeavouring to establish new attitudes and opinions, reinforcing existing attitudes and behaviours, or changing Members of Parliaments’ attitudes, opinions and behaviour. We now know none of this happened. Instead she has stuck to her plan and relied on tampering with the ‘backstop’, to make it more attractive to her Tory colleagues. But she failed to persuade either Brussels or Dublin to make any concessions on the ‘backstop’. Instead she has relied on “It is my deal or no deal”. Some commentators are suggesting the reason for Mrs May’s failure to persuade is that she lacks political empathy.

This may appear to be to be correct, but the literature on the importance of political empathy is not only unclear but is also contradictory. Much of it has only been published recently, and appears related to the Donald Trump and Barack Obama presidencies. It is an unclear area of research, and therefore unreliable.

Finally, Mrs May in her Lancaster House speech, on the 17th January 2017, announced her ‘four red lines’, and she refuses to budge on them. If she agreed to stay in the Customs Union all would be solved, but she won’t. But she has instead focussed on the ‘backstop’ as the weak point. It was not surprising that it was the Polish Foreign Minister who suggested the time lime on the ‘backstop’.

The Irish government should take note on Mrs May’s policy on the ‘backstop’ of what Niccolo Machiavelli wrote, “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”