Effective Leadership: Learning from David Cameron’s Failed Brexit Negotiations

Effective leadership often requires the ability to negotiate successfully with parties on both sides of an issue. But persuasion tactics can take you only so far, as Brexit negotiations illustrated.

By — on / International Negotiation

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Leaders sometimes need to devote significant time to convincing a counterpart of the logic and appeal of their proposals. What happens when they need to persuade negotiators on opposite sides of an issue to see your point of view? Such situations highlight why negotiation is important in leadership, as effective leadership can require special skills in these cases.

David Cameron faced a significant strategic leadership challenge when, as the prime minister of the United Kingdom (UK), he tried to convince the British public of the merits of remaining in the European Union (EU) while negotiating with the EU to make a “remain” vote more palatable. The decision of a narrow majority of voters on June 23, 2016, for Britain to exit the EU (a process referred to as Brexit) triggered Cameron’s resignation and created turmoil in Britain—showing potential limits to visionary leadership in negotiation.

The Limits of Remain or Leave

As the eurozone struggled to emerge from the global recession in the years after 2008, many in Britain began looking for a way to distance the UK from the European economy.

Cameron, prime minister since 2010, faced pressure from the right wing of his Conservative Party to hold a national referendum that would allow British voters to decide whether to remain in the EU. Hoping to keep that lobby in check, at an EU summit in Brussels, Cameron secured commitments aimed at protecting the British economy from the euro’s problems, as reported by the Guardian.

Back in London, Cameron rejected the idea of an “in or out” referendum. Calling himself a “practical euroskeptic,” the prime minister said a referendum offered citizens only two limited choices: remain or leave. EU membership, he argued, enabled the UK to be a full negotiating partner within the EU.

The Prime Minister Gives In

But by January 2013, Cameron was facing strong pressure to hold a referendum on EU membership from Conservative members of Parliament and increasingly from the right-wing UK Independent Party, which protested the influx of migrants across the EU’s open borders into Britain.

Cameron announced that his government, if reelected in 2015, would first negotiate with the EU for new commitments to address rising UK concerns about immigration, sovereignty, and other issues, and hold an in-out referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017. Following the Conservative Party’s victory in the May 2015 general election, Cameron announced a referendum date of June 23, even as he actively campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU.

Concessions and Compromise

Emboldened by his decisive reelection, Cameron visited 20 EU member states to lay the groundwork for his formal negotiations with the EU.

Eager to entice British voters to stay in the Union, EU leaders agreed readily to demands they could easily meet and negotiated for concessions on others. Britain secured new economic protections. To appease voter concerns about British sovereignty, the EU agreed to exclude the UK from official references to the EU’s goal of building a European “superstate.” Although the EU would not agree to allow national parliaments to veto proposed EU laws, as Cameron proposed, it did agree to reconsider such proposals if it heard complaints from parliaments. In addition, EU leaders agreed to lower taxes and bureaucratic hurdles for small and medium-sized businesses.

On the key issue of immigration, however, Cameron failed to demonstrate effective leadership. Given the EU’s commitment to guaranteeing free movement of and nondiscrimination against European citizens, EU leaders said they could not cut welfare benefits for migrant workers arriving in Britain from other parts of Europe. The negotiators did, however, discuss a possible “emergency brake” to allow Britain to deny benefits to incoming EU workers for their first four years in the country.

A Failed Campaign

Zigzagging from one European capital to the next, Cameron capped his campaign at a two-day summit of European leaders in December 2015 with “a bravura performance over dinner,” according to Reuters. Cameron and other European leaders felt confident they had granted the UK a generous deal that he could use to propel a “remain” vote in the referendum.

But in the campaign period that followed, “leave” proponents argued forcefully that Cameron had failed to adequately address the immigration issue with the EU. The vote was close, but Cameron’s campaign ultimately failed.

3 Tips for Effective Leadership in Negotiation

The result of the Brexit suggests the following three leadership skills for negotiators who need concessions from one party to secure agreement with another:

1. Weigh the risks of concessions. Cameron may have been overconfident in his ability to convince the British people of the virtues of remaining in the EU. In negotiation, effective leadership involves tempering your confidence with a thorough risk analysis.

2. Anticipate the limits of negotiations with allies. Cameron negotiated strenuously with the EU for the concessions he thought he’d need to convince British voters to stay in the union. However, he failed to make headway on immigration, the issue most important to many of his citizens.

3. Sell the deal back at home. Many UK voters were not convinced that the prime minister had gotten a great deal from the EU. Selling your deal to your constituents is a critical but often overlooked ingredient in effective leadership.

What negotiation skills have you found to be hallmarks of effective leadership?

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