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A weak UK government might do a better Brexit deal than a strong one

When Theresa May called her disastrous snap election, she justified it by saying she needed a longer and stronger mandate to negotiate a Brexit deal. Her campaign was based on the claim that she embodies strength and stability, and is therefore a better negotiator than her Labour rival, Jeremy Corbyn.

May’s much-derided “strong and stable” slogan boiled down to the idea that it was self-evident that Britain needs a strong domestic position to negotiate to its advantage, and to strongarm the EU into giving it concessions. Labour tried to convince the electorate that it could also offer a strong position if the voters backed it, but never challenged the assumption that a unified, internally strong Britain would be a better bargainer.

Yet strangely enough, when it comes to the way negotiation dynamics work, this “common sense” flies in the face of both theory and empirical research – both of which would have it that the UK’s messy political situation in fact puts it in a better position from which to get what it wants. When it comes to extracting concessions in negotiations, strength is weakness and weakness is strength.

This was famously suggested by John Nash, whose work on game theory won a Nobel Prize in economics (and whose life won an Oscar for best film). Nash’s mathematical bargaining formula holds that if one side in a negotiation is less than fully dependent on a deal being struck but more inflexible than the other side when it comes to the deal’s terms, then it will have to yield less than the opposing side.

While Nash’s bargaining theory is fully explained using highly complex mathematical proofs, the point that’s relevant to Brexit is relatively simple.

Imagine you visit a dealership to buy a car. If you were choosing a car completely independently and were dead set on buying one, you’d be less determined to negotiate a good price than you would be if you weren’t entirely sure you really needed a car, or if you had to justify your purchase to someone else – a sceptical spouse, say. If you’re less purely invested in the car no matter what and instead under pressure to justify the terms of the deal, you will need to get a better price. The dealer, meanwhile, just has to sell you the car.

Everyone’s watching

May’s government might now have a hazier vision of what it wants than it did headed into the election, but Nash’s theory would imply that since there are plenty of sceptical voices inside the Conservative party as well as outside it, the British team will now be better placed to get the best possible deal.

When a negotiator is vigilantly monitored rather than given freedom to make independent decisions with a clear mandate, it’s difficult for them to settle for the other side’s demands. According to Jean Bartunek’s research team, this gives one side a paradoxical sort of strength: to reach a negotiated solution, the “stronger” side ends up having to make more compromises than the weaker one.

A similar conclusion was reached by Helmuth Lamm and his co-researchers: if a negotiator is not only closely monitored but weakly positioned vis-à-vis the people monitoring them, they will be under even more pressure not to compromise. This might make the process messier and the agreement harder to reach – but it also means that if both sides want to reach one, the stronger side will be the one that needs to compromise.

Chin up: David Davis, Britain’s lead Brexit negotiator. EPA/Will Oliver

This is the dynamic that may be about to play out. May is short of a working majority, and is having to make difficult deals in order to govern with any sort of confidence. Her government will directly depend on the support of MPs and parties who aren’t committed to its preferred form of Brexit. May has neither strength nor stability on her side, and her team have substantially less political capital than they thought; that means a show of steadfastness in the face of EU demands could be their best hope for being allowed to see the negotiations through.

As things stand, the EU and its member states want a negotiated solution with the UK rather than no deal at all. Faced with the tightrope-walking representatives of a weak, pressurised government, they’ll have to accept that unreasonable demands have little or no chance of making it into the deal.

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