Jonathan Powell: On Brexit, bottom lines and what Theresa May can learn from Mike Tyson

Posted On: 
11th May 2017

Jonathan Powell has been at the heart of some of Britain’s toughest negotiations. Now he hopes to use his experience to secure a Brexit deal that works for business. Tony Blair's former chief of staff talks to John Ashmore. 

Theresa May's hardest job will be negotiating with the Brexiteers on her own side, Jonathan Powell warns
Paul Heartfield

With the small matter of the general election out of the way, the next government will face a set of negotiations which has Whitehall-watchers gritting their teeth in anticipation.

Barring a truly stunning reversal of fortunes for Labour, it will be Theresa May taking her ‘strong and stable’ team into talks which some seasoned observers think could last the best part of a decade.

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What May would give for a negotiator with Jonathan Powell’s experience. Powell was one of the great survivors of the New Labour years, staying as Tony Blair’s chief of staff from opposition all the way through to his departure from Number Ten in 2007.

Down the years he has been at the heart of deals on the transfer of Hong Kong to China, the Good Friday Agreement and countless EU summits.

But none of them comes close to the Brexit negotiations, which he describes as “the most complex, the most difficult, the most technically challenging” he’s ever seen.

To help make things that little bit easier, Powell has helped establish Brexit Exchange, a pan-European project to bring the voice of business and industry closer to the negotiations. Along with his co-chair, former German finance minister Steffen Kampeter, Powell hopes to use Brexit Exchange as a ‘neutral platform’ to promote the voice of business.

“Government can look after its part but what you need is a bottom-up approach, something that builds from the needs of business up to the negotiations,” he tells The House magazine from his office in the heart of Westminster, a stone’s throw from Europe House.

“It’s incredibly important to business and to the country that the framework agreement doesn’t lead to a complete disjunction in regulation, in the way that business operates. So we need to get the input from business, not just from the civil service and from people in government.”

Without this sort of information exchange, Powell argues, bureaucrats risk making fatal errors as the talks unwind. “I think the real danger of this negotiation is things are done by mistake because the people doing the negotiation don’t actually understand how the auto industry works, how the pharma industry works. They make mistakes, and that’s where this can contribute.”

Business themselves also need to wise up to the scale of change a post-Brexit world will entail, he argues.

“Different sectors are in different stages of preparation – it’s clear for example that the financial services sector is zooming ahead and they’re already talking about moving people out of London to be on the safe side. But quite a lot of the other sectors in Britain and perhaps particularly in Europe aren’t really prepared for this, this isn’t very high up their agenda and they’re suddenly going to be surprised by it when the negotiations start properly in the autumn after the German elections.”

It is telling that Powell puts more store in the fate of Angela Merkel, than what happens in the upcoming general election here – a campaign he considers a “sideshow”.  

“I think this will be, frankly, a rather dull election. I think it makes no difference to these negotiations whatsoever. I’m a bit puzzled by the idea this strengthens her negotiating hand – it doesn’t make any difference to the Europeans whether she has a massive majority or a small majority.

“At this stage, before we start the negotiations, I think people are going to shoot off. It’s an election campaign. But once we’re through the election campaign it’ll be very important to try and build trust, to have some confidence-building measures rather than having a sort of rhetorical war, because that’s going to get us precisely nowhere.”

When it comes down to the work of negotiating, Powell reckons our bureaucrats and politicians could do worse than heed the words of Mike Tyson.

“I think it’s going to get very, very complicated because a negotiation is with other people, you have to make compromises, it’s not where you go along and make a series of policy decisions and those are implemented. She’s going to need to be flexible.

“It’s the thing that, I forget his name, the boxer who says ‘everyone has a plan when they go in to fight – but it disappears as soon as they’re knocked in the mouth’. That’s the problem, as soon as she engages with the enemy her strategy is going to collapse, so she needs to be flexible, she needs to be ready to compromise.”  

So what advice does Powell offer to May?

“The first thing you need is to really get some European expertise in from outside…I would be bringing back some of the old lags who really have done these sort of negotiations in the past to beef up her team.

“Secondly, I would really try and work out what my bottom lines are. In negotiating jargon, academics talk about BATNA – Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement – and she really needs to think through what that is. It’s all very well people saying no agreement is fine – it isn’t. It would be absolutely catastrophic, and that’s one of the things that business will tell you if you talk to them.”

What, if any, are the UK’s strengths going into these talks? Again, Powell invokes a martial metaphor.

“I actually think, funnily enough, our negotiating strength may be our weakness. In other words, because we’re weak that gives us a certain amount of strength, people do understand there are certain things a British prime minister is not going to be able to agree to, and that’s where they’ll have to sort of come to terms themselves.

“Sometimes there’s a sort of Ju-jitsu in negotiations – if you’re actually weak you can turn that into a strength. That’s probably our best hope.”

To outsiders, the sheer physical strain of the negotiations might seem baffling, with crucial decisions made when the participants are weary to the point of incoherence.

One of the more striking details of David Cameron’s ill-fated 2015 negotiations was his team powering through the night fuelled only by endless bags of Haribo’s finest confectionary.

But Powell argues that the threat of failure is the thing that expedites these talks to the point that some sort of agreement is possible. 

“What builds tension in a negotiation is the deadline, it’s when you start bumping up against the deadline that things get really heated, difficult, and people get exhausted. When we did the Good Friday Agreement we had three days and nights without sleep when we were negotiating the last bit of it. That’s when people get sort of start hallucinating and that’s also when you make compromises.

“There’s a reason that all European Councils always go through the night. We used to always say when we went to European Council ‘is this a one shirt, two shirt or three shirt negotiation?’ It’s that question of the deadline, because that’s what forces people into decisions.”

He also suggests May’s team would also do well to check their counterparts’ dietary habits.

“When we used to negotiate with Helmut Kohl when he was German Chancellor we’d make the negotiations start just before lunchtime. We knew he’d get really anxious about his lunch fairly early on and you could actually get to a compromise.”

May might take solace, too, from the prospect of a thumping Tory majority muffling the more restive eurosceptic voices on her own backbenches. 

Powell’s experience in both Hong Kong and Northern Ireland suggests it is these internal wrangles that often prove more difficult than any clashes with the other side of the negotiation.

“My mentor when I was doing the Hong Kong negotiation back in the early 1980s was Sir Percy Craddock. He said Craddock’s First Law of Diplomacy is the hardest negotiations are on your own side. When we were doing the Hong Kong negotiations his biggest challenge was negotiating with Mrs Thatcher, negotiating with ExCo, the executive council in Hong Kong. The Chinese were relatively easy by comparison.

“Gerry Adams, with whom I had to negotiate later, said the same thing – negotiating with your own band is always the hardest thing to do. So, I think the most difficult negotiations will be on the British government’s side with the Tory backbenchers, with different departments, different ministers and, of course, the British public.”

May should also beware the power of the press, he suggests.

“I know from experience in Number 10 that it is very hard with the British media, particularly the Daily Mail and the Sun. They like to have a good fight with the Europeans and they’re going to want to keep the fight going all the way through, which will make the job much more difficult.”

As for the substance of the negotiations, Powell is particularly concerned about the future of Northern Ireland, though he is clear that there is no prospect of returning to the darkest years of the Troubles.

Although May has previously responded to the border question by pointing out that a Common Travel Area existed before the EU, that does not get around the fact that the Republic and the UK will soon have materially different immigration and customs arrangements.

The question, then, is whether to bring in customs checks on the border, or between the island of Ireland and the British Isles.

Powell’s view is that hardening the border in any way will raise serious questions of identity which could exacerbate the existing political tensions on the province.

“The basis of the Good Friday Agreement was people in the North could be Irish, could be British, could be both and were free to have their identity. They could paint their kerbstones with the tricolour or paint their kerbstones red, white and blue. If you start breaking that up by making the border mean something, it’s very hard to get backwards and forwards across it, then that will undermine the whole basis of the Good Friday Agreement. “

One of the strangest effects of the Brexit vote, he adds, might be to make Unionists reconsider the idea of a united Ireland if it means they can stay in the EU.

“What you seem to have now in the North – and I wouldn’t exaggerate it – is a feeling among many Unionists, middle-class Unionists in particular, who voted against Brexit, that actually when they come to look at this now maybe it’s not such a great idea for their economic interests to stay out of the Republic of Ireland if the Republic of Ireland is going to be in the EU and the Single Market and they’d be out.

“You actually hear people in rugby clubs and golf clubs talking about this, which you never had before and if you think about the percentage that voted against Brexit, that wasn’t a Catholic vote, that was a Protestant vote as well as a Catholic vote.”

The prospect of a referendum on Irish unity, once the stuff of Republican fantasy, now seems that little bit more real.

“By the Good Friday Agreement we closed down the idea of a united Ireland at least for a generation and now Brexit’s opened it up. We tried to make Northern Ireland boring and the trouble with Brexit is it’s going to make it interesting again.”

If ‘interesting’ is shorthand for turbulent, difficult and exhausting, Theresa May and her team are certainly in for an extremely interesting few years in Brussels.


If I was them my biggest worry would be going off a cliff, that it all just becomes too difficult, that the Mail and the Sun and others make a huge fuss and Theresa May feels compelled by her backbenchers and those tabloid newspapers to walk out. In those circumstances it's extremely bad news for Britain – I mean catastrophic basically – but it's also bad for Europe. What they'll want to be careful of is they don't provoke that. I think that will be their single biggest worry.


It's like when you eat a very large lunch, all the blood goes to your stomach, and that's what's going to happen to the civil service. I can see it already. An awful lot of the departments are now focused on dealing with this great big problem and so obviously they can't deal with the other problems. Not just civil servants, but politicians too. So there's an opportunity cost.  


Personalities are very important in negotiation, but most of the personalities that are going to be engaged in this are people most of the public don't know about at all. These negotiations are not going to be between Theresa May and European leaders, they're not even going to be between David Davis and Michel Barnier, they're going to be between European bureaucrats and British bureaucrats – they're going to be the ones doing all the hard work. Their personalities and their ability to get on will be very important, to build some sort of trust so they can make compromises. If you don't have that, you don't have that kind of relationship, it becomes very difficult indeed.


He's a politician who towers above most of today's politicians, so actually hearing him speaking about Europe I find very encouraging. Compromise and persistence were his particular skills. Watching him do the Northern Ireland negotiations was a remarkable masterclass in how to negotiate, winning over the Unionists, winning over Sinn Fein, persuading them to take steps they didn't want to take and most of all sticking with it, really going, going, going. 



Brexit Exchange will be launched on Thursday 18th May at the Leadenhall Building. For more information visit