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‘I would write Juncker off – he is deeply hostile’: What three former Cabinet Secretaries make of May’s Brexit negotiation strategy

10 min read

Lords Butler, Wilson and Turnbull have decades of experience serving alongside prime ministers as they negotiate with Brussels. But as Britain prepares for the toughest talks yet, what do the three former Cabinet Secretaries make of Theresa May’s emerging strategy? They speak to Robert Orchard.

While MPs are away from their Westminster comfort zone – out on the election stump, canvassing voters and fighting to the last soundbite – we have been making our own House to House enquiries. As the country decides whether to hand Theresa May the “strong mandate” she craves ahead of Brexit negotiations, this magazine has been taking soundings among that elite club of former Whitehall mandarins who, in their prime, whispered in the ear of prime ministers past as they faced their own difficult talks with Brussels.

How do these veterans of Number Ten assess the battle-cries and the increasingly feverish maneuvering emerging from both sides in recent weeks? Things started going downhill at that now notorious Downing Street dinner last month, where Theresa May ‘entertained’ the EU Commission president – though that’s hardly what Jean-Claude Juncker would call le mot juste, to what he found an indigestible diet of demands and denials which was then promptly regurgitated all over the pages of a German newspaper.

Robin Butler, now a crossbench peer, is the doyen of former Downing Street mandarins. He worked for a total of five prime ministers – from Heath and Wilson to Thatcher, Major and Blair – and served in the top job as Cabinet Secretary to Thatcher and her two successors.

Butler watched at close hand as Margaret Thatcher wielded her famous handbag at the Fontainebleau summit in 1984 to win Britain a substantial rebate deal which reduced our previous contribution to the EU budget, then mostly spent on subsidising farming. He was also at the side of her successor, John Major, as he negotiated opt-outs for Britain from the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency in the early 1990s.

Butler says the two prime ministers had “very different” approaches to dealing with Brussels, both of which were effective in their own ways. “Margaret Thatcher had a forthright style of negotiating over the rebate. There was rhetoric, but in the end a deal was done and that is what I hope is going to happen this time,” he says. “John Major had another style which was also very effective. I believe he got as good a deal at Maastricht as was possible, and he probably got a better deal there than Mrs Thatcher could have got through her methods.”

Butler is relaxed about the latest salvoes, and plays down Theresa May’s angry accusation that Brussels was trying to meddle in the British general election. “No I don’t think so at all. The posture the EU is taking up is relating to the negotiations rather than wanting to affect our election. The rhetoric has been ratcheted up in recent weeks but I tend to discount it. Leaders on both sides have got to show their people that they are going to fight hard for their interests.”

He thinks that, ultimately, it all comes down to ‘personal chemistry’ between the leaders who must carry out the final negotiations: “There is no doubt that when the crunch comes, the final deal, as with Thatcher over the rebate and Major over Maastricht, it will be the prime minister – probably in the small hours of the morning – who will have to reach an agreement. But this negotiation is hugely more complicated than the rebate or even Maastricht.”

Lord Butler thinks May will be her own person and do things her own way. “I had the opportunity to see Theresa May in action when I was dealing with intelligence and security matters, and I was very impressed by her. She always knew her brief, she wasn’t flashy but she was very determined.” 


Andrew – now Lord – Turnbull was Cabinet Secretary for several years of Tony Blair’s premiership, including the controversial Iraq War. He takes a less charitable view of the recent exchange of fire over Brexit:

“I think we have had a burst of rhetoric that is counter-productive, but I suspect the more intelligent EU leaders – and I don’t include Juncker in that – realise that there is an election in this country.

“It is important, however, that the government is careful not to say things that they will come to regret. Going to the point of saying that the EU are trying to influence the outcome of the election is a step too far and not helpful.

“In the end you have got to get down to some serious negotiations with serious people. I don’t think Juncker is in that category and I think he has got to be bypassed by making sure you work hard with the other players, people like Donald Tusk, president of the European Council of ministers, and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.

“I would write Juncker off really – he is deeply hostile to the UK. The other two are serious players and maintaining a good relationship with them is absolutely essential.”

He adds: ”It’s not as though Mrs May needs this rhetoric to win the election: she had a reputation as someone very much under control, but I thought her body language when she came out – the way she was speaking at the lectern – was not under control; she was clearly angry.

“Going out in Downing St and claiming – almost Trump-like – that someone is interfering in the election, it was unnecessary. It is very nice to whip up the feeling in this country that there is this enemy we have got to deal with and get out of their clutches, but actually we are trying to get back into all sorts of agreements with these people.”

He has forthright views too on which of our former prime ministers were most successful at negotiating with our EU partners: “Tony Blair was a disastrous negotiator with Europe... with the one honourable exception of Northern Ireland. Cameron was pretty hopeless. Both Major and Thatcher were good and successful negotiators. Theresa May needs to be more like John Major – dogged, persistent, keeping the temperature down, not in a hurry to find a settlement. He probably has the best record of the lot.”

Lord Turnbull also winces at Theresa May’s proud appropriation of Ken Clarke’s unguarded admission that she can be a “bloody difficult woman”. He says: “It is more important to establish a way forward. It won’t be easy to sideline Juncker but she mustn’t get rattled by whatever he says and rise to the bait. Mr Barnier has said he thinks our election is a good idea, because it will strengthen her hand internally so she can eventually tell her Cabinet colleague, the leading Brexiteer Liam Fox: ‘I am sorry but I am not going down your line, I am going down some other line’, because the real constraint is the lack of agreement in the governing Tory party over the nature of Brexit.”

So his advice to this prime minister about the forthcoming EU negotiations? “She needs patience, I think, and the ability not to rise to the bait of highly-charged domestic pressure. I don’t think threats to walk away do any good – just keep the negotiations going. You want to avoid setting deadlines. Keep the process as protracted as possible so the transition is slower – it could take years.

“My main concern is to ensure we don’t take a view on the balance between immigration control and free trade before we really need to do that.”

And there’s one senior colleague he wouldn’t suggest she turns to for advice: “Boris Johnson? What you want him to do is shut his big mouth. The foreign secretary is a much diminished role because foreign affairs are dealt with much more by the prime minister these days. He is not very important and he cannot unlock anything in these talks.”

Richard Wilson presided over the early Blair years after Robin Butler stepped down. His impish sense of humour shines through many of his utterances, but he thinks Brexit is no laughing matter. He believes that if Juncker did indeed authorise the leak of that Downing Street dinner, it was a tactical error and has damaged trust. “What matters in the negotiations is whether there is some sort of rapport between the British negotiating team and the EU negotiators and the heads of state,” he says. “You can have a very tough negotiation but if the negotiators on both sides respect each other, if there is some kind of rapport, that makes a huge difference compared to if there is real cold hostility.”

And he is at pains not to try to second guess how Theresa May is thinking: “You don’t know ever with a new prime minister what sort of PM they are going to be for a year or two. We did not know what Thatcher or Major or Blair would be like, it only emerges over time. The reality is that she probably doesn’t know herself what kind of prime minister she will be – they have to be tested in the fire.”

As for the sabre-rattling against Brussels by that ‘bloody difficult woman’, he says it sends a message to British voters and to Conservative Brexiteers. “You have to remember that the final act of this negotiation will be between Mrs May and the Brexiteers in her party who are likely to disapprove of any concession, and also there’s the main body of opinion in parliament and in the public. All the time I get the impression that she is playing her cards very carefully so as not to alienate Brexiteeers until she has to. She is playing it very carefully.

“What do we know about the kind of people the Conservative Party is choosing as candidates for parliament? That is going to make a big difference to the endgame. I would guess that she has moved in pretty sharply and toughly in selecting people of the kind she wants for that endgame. I am sure that endgame is never far from her thoughts.”

All three of the former top mandarins The House spoke to thought that the prime minister was running a highly personalised election campaign in which the Conservative Party name and identity is taking a back seat. Robin, now Lord, Butler muses: “Margaret Thatcher always took the view that you should mention your opponent and the opposition as rarely as possible. Just talk about what you are going to do. But with the Brexit negotiations, it’s different: the personality of the person who will lead the talks is far more important.”

Lord Wilson agrees that Margaret Thatcher’s instinct would not have been to do it all on her own. “Mrs Thatcher would have liked to have other people identified with the campaign. If you put it all on yourself then any failure is all yours too. That is the risk of it – you have to be confident to do that.

“Theresa May is putting a huge weight on herself by playing her cards so close to her chest and by having so few allies. I think she must be very careful not to rely too much on her own judgement.”  

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