Boris’ Brexit Brinkmanship. The Pros and Cons of this Negotiation Technique

If like me, you are wondering why the government would be in favour of a No-Deal Brexit, here’s my explanation. It’s a negotiation technique aimed at forcing the other side to give in to unreasonable terms. The purpose of this post is to look at the latest Brexit position from a conflict resolution perspective, not to debate whether I am in favour of it or not. In any case, I think we’re a little late for that !

Brinkmanship isn’t new. Boris certainly didn’t invent it. The best example of it is the Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of war until the Soviet Union conceded. We also see this in everyday examples. Hijackers and kidnappers use it to convince the police that they will kill hostages unless they get the sum of money or other benefit that they have demanded. It’s also used by unions. If you have ever experienced the wrath of a Londoner, 48 hours before a tube strike is called, you can understand why this brings the London Underground to the negotiating table.

What is Brinkmanship?

It’s a game of chicken. It’s about making the other side believe that you are willing to push the button on the nuclear bomb unless they agree to your unreasonable terms or back down. Dominance, aggression, belligerence, unreasonableness and downright lunacy are all features of this.

Brinkmanship and Brexit

Boris has committed to taking the UK out of the EU on 31st October, come what may. This, according to leading economists such as the Bank of England is likely to lead to a recession and just the threats alone, have resulted in the value of the pound plummeting. His government has refused to rule out a no-deal budget and allocated billions to that eventuality. He is also forking out millions in tax-payer money for advertising campaigns to reassure the public about the effect of a no-deal Brexit both in the UK and across the EU.

 It also risks the disintegration of the United Kingdom as Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in favour of remaining in the EU. It could even re-open the violent conflict in Northern Ireland that was put to rest by the Good Friday Agreement.

There is a method to this madness. It’s meant to look like a serious position instead of a bluff. Why else would you borrow millions to advertise it?


The key advantage to this technique is that you use your powerful weapon to force the other party to be so scared that you’ll use it, that they give in to your demands. Once in that fearful state, they’ll agree to your terms.

When large companies do this with smaller companies, they use their economic dominance to force them to agree to large discounts or unfair contractual terms.  This is the best scenario for brinkmanship. Your opponent may be strong, but you have figured out their weakness and what you’ve got is so dangerous to them that the threat of destruction brings them to their knees.  

Realistically, you’ll not care about what they think of you afterwards, your relationship or any long terms effects.

With Brexit, the threat to the EU is that they will lose trade and financial contribution from the fifth strongest economy in the world which is likely to have a knock-on effect to the rest of the EU.  It may even inspire other countries in the EU to do the same, especially with the rise of right-wing politics.

There’s also the re-framing of the back-stop. Boris has rejected it as undemocratic, saying that they cannot accept any European intervention in any of its territory. What this means is that there will be no transition period for Northern Ireland and so businesses which trade between the two territories will face EU checks and tariffs overnight. It has also reignited the political conflict relating to British rule over Northern Ireland. The DUP who wish to remain part of Great Britain and who enable the Conservative majority, want to ditch the back stop. They see this as a way to further entrench the union. Sinn Fein’s answer to that could have been predicted. A hard border will bring them closer towards British rule, something they adamantly oppose.

A benefit for Boris is that this is forcing Ireland and the EU to concede to Britain, rights that other EU Members cannot give to non-EU members. This is what he is counting on from such a stiff stance.

Photo by @joagbriel on

The political advantages

There’s another motivating factor in all of this too. The easy way out is a no-deal. It means that Boris just has to do what he is good at. Bluster and bluff to mask his incompetence. Theresa May couldn’t get Parliament to agree to her proposed deal but a no-deal Brexit means Boris doesn’t need to waste time getting Parliament to agree or reject. In fact, no action is required to leave without a deal.

This position appeals to pro-Brexit supporters who might prefer the coarse, macho approach of Nigel Farage but will back Boris because he’s the PM and is taking the desired action. The “we’ll show them” attitude appeals to those voters who are tired of being told what to do by the EU and want to take back control. Boris will be able to exploit those voters if a general election is held before 31st October and if we leave without a deal, he’ll have destroyed the Brexit Party. They’ll only be viable as long as Brexit is.

The position he has taken over the back-stop strengthens his alliance with the DUP, without which, his very fragile majority will fall.

It also means he can defeat Corbyn with it. The Labour Party has been shy in coming out with their position. I’m still quite unclear about their remain stance which is unsurprising since their voting base is split over the issue. It’s unlikely that the Liberal Democrats will gain a majority in Parliament because of the First Past the Post electoral system and so Boris is hoping that a split opposition over the issue will be easily conquered. What he hasn’t factored in, is the renewed energy of the Liberal Democrats who may gain seats with their pro-remain agenda and their willingness to form alliances with other pro-remain parties. They’ve made a significant win in a recent by-election which has reduced the Conservative majority to just one MP which has left us wondering whether we’ll even have a government by the end of the summer recess. In this political climate, anything is possible.

The Disadvantages

The context of brinkmanship has to be right.

With the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world risked nuclear war between two powerful, competing nations.

Trump is able to use a kind of brinkmanship with countries like Guatemala. He can threaten them with sanctions that would devastate developing countries. The result is that they quickly yield to accommodate his immigration policies, even if they violate human rights.

However, brinkmanship can lead to long-term anger, resentment and it destroys relationships. Guatemala relies on trade with the US and so even if they are angry, there’s not much they can do about it.

We simply don’t have that kind of sway with the EU. Boris is attempting to portray Brexit as a war. However, this isn’t a war. He’s also trying to portray us as being able to weather the economic storm that will follow. There are many that say that we will be able to withstand disentangling ourselves from the most integrated economic system in the world. All we need, is a bit of positive thinking, according to Boris.

We’re also dealing with a union of countries. That’s a huge market we would probably be prudent to trade with, whether we leave with a deal or not.

As for the rest of the world, we won’t be able to agree a trade deal with them until we leave the EU. Trade deals take time and negotiation. It’s not just a case of magically entering into a trade deal with the EU or with other countries. These, like all international treaties, are negotiated. Maintaining a good relationship with the EU and all of its members is a good idea for that reason alone.

If you underestimate your opponent’s strength, they could just walk away. Similarly, if you over-inflate the power of the threat, they could just see it as a bluff and ignore it.

Make no mistake, the EU have several negotiation experts on their team that can recognise this technique for what it is.

That’s not to say that the EU won’t suffer from a no-deal but one of its interests is maintaining unity. If it yields to Boris, it may face the same from countries such as Poland, Greece or Italy.

The other problem that we face is that we have no terms to offer the EU if they did actually yield. Theresa’s deal is off the table and didn’t really ever make it onto said table. So, it’s unclear what the EU is supposed to be yielding to. The intention behind all of this may be instead to make the EU more compliant. If they are not compliant by the end of all of this, Michael Gove can continue to blame them for a no deal Brexit when what he really means is, they won’t do as they are told. Not a good negotiation strategy.

I’d love to know your thoughts and happy to debate this respectfully!


  • Surely brinkmanship fails absolutely when the word of Boorish Johnson is so untrustworthy – we all (including the EU) know Boris lies instinctively, so why should anyone believe him now (or indeed ever?)


    • The Conflict Expert

      Trust and credibility are fundamental elements of a negotiation, especially when you view it as a type of relationship involving information exchange. How can you discuss sometimes difficult matters with somebody you don’t trust?


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