What went wrong for Theresa May

What was it? Negotiation error by Theresa May

Immediately after the vote in the House of Commons, Annette Dittert provided a short and concise summary. The negotiation process of the Brexit will only be able to take place at the end of the procedure. And it will take time. A large number of experts, politicians and citizens see Theresa May as the main culprit for the mess at hand. However, the situation is so complex that, in my opinion, this view would fall short of the mark.

One thing is certain: from a negotiation point of view, Theresa May made serious mistakes. If there are still doubts that there is a lack of negotiating competence in world politics in many places, Brexit, among other things, is a good counterexample.

The first big mistake of the U.K. was already in the preparation phase - with the topic "negotiating team and roles"

Preparing for a negotiation as complex as leaving the European Union cannot be given too much importance. As in any other negotiation, you have to prepare for three complexes: the topics, the process and the people. The latter also includes the careful composition of your own negotiation team and the definition of roles. This role clarity contributes to the process and helps to work on topics and "get through". A correction in the course of the negotiation process is difficult, causes a lot of unrest and in the best case only leads to delays.


What are the roles in a negotiation team?

Put simply, there are three core roles: those of the lead negotiator, the captain and the decision maker. The Lead negotiator is the responsible negotiator. He has a defined negotiation framework and sits at the table with the negotiator on the other side.

The Captain is the next higher instance and escalation level. With the Decision Maker he works out the scope for negotiation, sets ambitious, yet realistic goals, as well as the exit point. The captain advises the lead negotiator on putting the rest of the negotiating team together, is the first point of contact for the lead negotiator if short-term decisions become necessary in the course of the negotiations (which are not originally within the scope of negotiation) and coordinates closely with the decision maker in order to get a possible agreement through .

The Decision Maker is - as the name suggests - the person or authority who must be the last to approve the agreement that has been drawn up.

What were the roles on the side of the European Union?

In the EU, all members had to agree to a withdrawal agreement. So there were two institutions that acted as decision makers: the European Council and the European Parliament. In order to bring all members to a common line and keep them in the course of the negotiations, internal negotiations were necessary in both institutions. So Brexit negotiators were institutionalized: Guy Verhofstadt for the European Parliament, Didier Seeuws for the European Council. The latter had Donald Tusk as captain. Shortly after the announcement of the UK's exit effort, the EU's lead negotiator was determined: Michel Barnier. He had Juncker at his side as Captain Jean-Claude.

Long story short: five people were the face of the EU negotiating team and were able to consolidate and represent the positions of all member states. Barnier only had to coordinate with Seeuws and Verhofstadt, who in turn had the responsibility to work internally and to keep the respective decision-making institutions together. Two captains served as escalations: Juncker and Tusk. Both adhered to their roles and only came to negotiations where it was absolutely necessary. From a negotiating point of view, the European Union has solved the composition of the negotiating team and the definition of the roles perfectly!

How did the U.K. Brexit negotiating team together?

On the other side of the negotiating table it looked completely different, that was already anticipated. The first lead negotiator was David Davis. This was then replaced by Dominic Raab. So far so good. Theresa May then appointed herself lead negotiator and demoted Raab to deputy. She kept the model even after Raab gave up his position and Barclay took his place. David Cameron was in the captain's position at the beginning of the Brexit negotiations, but May was quickly replaced. U.K. also had two decision makers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the former being the main decision-making body.

It should actually have been easier on the UK side, as there was only one key decision-maker and fewer people compared to the EU. But things turned out differently - May maneuvered himself into this situation. Your role as captain should be limited to working with the House of Commons (Decision Maker). As described above, she should have collected and consolidated positions at the beginning - working out a goal, a limit, possible options, etc. with the House of Commons. Too little of that has happened. "Mays critics accuse her of always wanting to fight alone, to be resistant to advice, not to form coalitions. From the beginning she made a firm commitment: “Brexit is Brexit” she kept saying like a robot, which is why she never got rid of her nickname “Maybot”". (FAZ)

Instead, she also appointed herself lead negotiator. This eliminated one level of escalation. And it was now fighting on two fronts: with the EU and with its own lower house. Furthermore, she demoted the former lead negotiator to an onlooker. If you are negotiating with a team and you realize that the captain is also at the table, who are you negotiating with? With the designated negotiator, or with the decision-making level above? In a fit of striving for power, May developed into a bottleneck himself and lost sight of the important project - to involve and inform the decision maker. That fell on her feet.

What other negotiation mistakes were made?

Distributive tactics

May has so far in the negotiation process towards his own negotiating side (!) Distributive tactics are used: threats, ultimatums, drama (“Kingdom would fall apart”). These can work, but they have to be strictly adhered to. The threat that there is no alternative to May's deal exposes even a non-expert as nonsense. There are a number of alternatives; only a few have been examined and analyzed in detail. May also failed to adhere to the ultimatums she had set herself. The problem with this is that you lose credibility entirely through inconsistency.

Shortly before the preliminary agreement with the EU was finalized, May also tried to undermine the EU's negotiating team. Before meeting Juncker, probably wearing her “captain hat” and not as lead negotiator, she was visiting Angela Merkel. This wasn't the first time the U.K. tried to win over individual members in order to shake the unity in the decision-making institutions of the EU.



Every negotiation has an alternative. Whether she's attractive or not is another piece of paper. The alternative to the Brexit agreement was and is the no-deal variant, an uncoordinated exit. In the preparation phase of a complex negotiation, one has to look at possible alternatives to an agreement. Even while the negotiations are ongoing, you have to work in parallel to strengthen your own alternative. However, it was only after more than a year in the negotiation process that Great Britain began to deal with the “no-deal alternative” and to assess the potential effects on the country.


Annette Dittert begins her comment with the statement: "One could feel sorry for Theresa May, but one shouldn't. For the bleak prospects that she and her country now face are largely due to herself“. From a negotiation point of view, I cannot add anything more to this statement.

The FAZ wrote in an article on May "She fought and fought, got up after every setback and ultimately failed“. The setbacks she has suffered, however, are not (as is often the case) to be attributed to the opposing negotiating team, but exclusively to May herself. To neglect one's own negotiating side so criminally and to take on all roles - no negotiating team survives. Neither in politics nor in business.

I find it particularly regrettable because women generally negotiate better on behalf of groups. Theresa May has therefore also extremely damaged the reputation of negotiators.