Settling the bill – managing public expectations will be half the battle

With Article 50 due to be triggered in the next six weeks, attention is turning to the difficult negotiations that lie ahead. But little consideration is being given to what is likely to be one of the most contentious issues on the table: settling Britain’s exit bill.

Aside from an excellent article by Alex Barker in The Economist and a handful of smaller pieces, the mainstream media have largely ignored an issue which is sure to be front of mind for Theresa May’s fellow European leaders. And this is of course to Downing Street’s liking: no mention of the need to secure a financial settlement was made in either the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech, or the recent Brexit White Paper.

But this situation is unsustainable. As soon as the tabloid press get wind of the issue, there is more than a fair chance they will become fixated. Mrs. May and her team would do well to learn the lessons of the previous government who had mixed success in communicating financial negotiations with Brussels.

The most sensible approach will of course be to say as little as possible, which has worked fairly well to date for this government. But their ability to resist the insatiable appetite of the media for stories to fill their column inches can only last so long. The tabloids in particular will want to provide their readers with the running commentary on the negotiations that the Prime Minister so loathes. It is imperative that the Prime Minister and her team have a plan in place to deal with this.

Key to their success will be to avoid the temptation to overstate triumphs, and play down setbacks. The negotiations will inevitably be a story of ups and downs and the Government’s objective has got to be to communicate progress above all else given the tight two year window in which to reach agreement.

The best case scenario will be for the Government to successfully position the financial aspect of the negotiations as a bill to be paid, thereby honouring commitments Britain has already made to the European Union, to begin a trading relationship with our European partners in good faith and on the best terms.

To be seen as delivered on its word, and negotiated a good deal for Britain, is ultimately what the Government will set out to achieve. Setting expectations about how difficult this will be right at the outset and effective communication throughout the process will be critical to the Government’s success.

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