Conservative Party divisions contributed to the failure of Brexit negotiations, new study shows

Divisions in the Conservative Party allowed the European Union to set the agenda during Brexit negotiations, a new study shows.

The EU was able to monopolise the production of key negotiating texts and guidelines because the Tories were distracted by infighting, the evidence collected by academics says. This allowed the EU to “box-in” the UK. As a result, UK negotiators have been forced into a series of incremental and last-minute concessions.

Researchers from King’s College, University College London and the University of Exeter tracked key Brexit decisions and developments by the UK government between June 2016 and May 2019. Claire Dunlop, Scott James and Claudio Radaelli analysed public documents – Brexit documents and planning, civil service reports about Brexit, reports by think tanks reports and media coverage over this period. They interviewed seven UK policy makers and external policy stakeholders – from thinktanks, business, trade associations, lobbyists in the summer of 2017 and 2018.

The study suggests the path towards Britain leaving the EU would have been smoother if Theresa May and her ministers had listened more to experts, and the public, so there could have been genuine learning process about a new deal and what it would involve.

Professor Claire Dunlop, from the University of Exeter, said: “Of course Parliamentary arithmetic has made the Brexit process complicated, but a bigger problem has been that the Government’s failure to find effective ways to listen and learn has created ping pong, not debate which can solve problems.”

The study, published in the Journal of European Public Policy, shows British negotiators were restricted to having to bargain because of Conservative Party instability following the June 2017 election. The Government had to prioritise its survival and the management of the Conservative party, instead of long-term strategic policy thinking about Brexit.

This helped to make Britain’s exit from Europe an intractable policy issue, but ministers didn’t try to find new ideas or policy to end this impasse because of a culture of mistrust and suspicion generated by the referendum and cabinet splits. Instead they created mistrust by not communicating with each other, meaning different government departments were sending conflicting messages.

Professor Claudio Radaelli, from UCL/School of Public Policy, said: “Even before the 2017 election Theresa May was almost impermeable to arguments aired in cabinet, and instead relied on a small and narrow clique of Eurosceptic MPs to formulate her early Brexit ‘strategy’. She felt as if she had to do that because she had lost her majority.

“She thought asserting control over the process was best because of splits in her party, but instead of solving problems this caused confusion.”

The research describes a bunker-mentality in No.10, where the Prime Minister and staff tried to use obfuscation to deflect challenges. This position was untenable, however, once the UK triggered Article 50 in March 2017 and the Brexit negotiations got underway. The lines of responsibility were blurred by the fact that the UK’s lead official negotiator, Oliver Robbins, originally had a dual reporting line to the Brexit Secretary and Prime Minister. This created tensions with No.10. His move to the Cabinet Office in September 2017 undermined the position of DExEU, contributing to its high turnover of ministers and senior officials and eroding its capacity for institutional memory and accumulation of expertise over time.

Overall the Brexit process travelled in a “highly dysfunctional form” that “prioritised short-term political demands (namely, government survival and party management) over long-term strategic policy thinking”.

The study is fully accessible in gold open access at:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13501763.2019.1667415