Cameron and Clegg – great negotiators?

17 May 2010
Peter SmithI promise to cover something non-political soon but, given the events of the last week, it seems appropriate to discuss what we can learn from the politicians about negotiating strategies. My first thought when Clegg disappeared to talk to Labour was “how sneaky of him”. Then I thought; hang on, wouldn’t I do this, even if I had a supplier I was very keen to use, just to make sure that supplier knows I have a real alternative? It is all about developing your BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement), a fundamental concept in negotiation. It was I believe first proposed by Fisher and Ury, the authors of Getting to YES. If you haven’t read it, it is thoroughly recommended – the best basic, but not simplistic, book on negotiation I know. Anyway, Clegg’s tactics worked – Cameron came back with an improved offer pretty quickly. Then I wondered about Cameron. Had he given too much away on his side of the negotiation? Perhaps he was taking the long view. You can’t beat the other party around the head during the negotiation phase then turn round and expect a happy, smiling ‘strategic partnership’ (although I’ve seen plenty of people try!). So did Cameron sacrifice a bit of up-front benefit for the sake of the longer-term relationship? As Andy Davies points out here, the whole negotiation process on both sides appeared to be pretty well planned and executed as well. Clegg had his list of points, fallback positions and so on; negotiation teams had been selected and briefed well in advance of all this happening. Good lessons for us. The final point that occurred to me was this. There was some suggestion that Clegg and perhaps even Cameron ‘used’ the negotiations with Labour to help persuade their own people that the Conservative/Liberal Democrat deal was the right one. That has parallels to our world. I’ve had relatively straightforward negotiations with a supplier; then pain and suffering trying to persuade my own colleagues to use a deal, change suppliers or whatever. Internal negotiations can be tougher than external. I suspect Cameron and Clegg were aware of this and played that into their strategies as well. And those internal aspects will no doubt raise their heads again over the coming months. In the meantime, we wait for the cuts, the tax rises, the efficiency savings, and the exciting prospect of seeing the government “negotiate significant cost reductions in the contracts held by government departments with major suppliers” as the Tories put it - now that will be an excellent piece of negotiation!
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