Brexit secretary David Davis revealed his negotiating knowhow in 1988 book

Dan Roberts Brexit policy editor
David Davis, who wrote How to Turn Round a Company in 1998 Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

“This puts a premium on nerve,” wrote the author of a management textbook explaining how best to bluff your way through important negotiations. “A general air of visible determination and activity is extremely important to the perception-shaping exercise”.

It could have been bravado taken straight from Donald Trump’s 1987 bestseller The Art of the Deal, but in fact the blustering advice came a year later from a young sugar industry executive called David Davis.

Unlike Trump’s book, which has been dusted down by several US politicians trying to second-guess presidential tactics during his recent healthcare talks, the aspiring British politician left little trace of his 1988 book How to Turn Round a Company. In the British Library, the only copy of the out-of-print hardback is pristine. Just a handful of secondhand copies are on the market for up to £100.

But as he prepares to take Britain into the biggest gamble of modern political history, the current secretary of state for leaving the European Union has left important clues to his approach to brinkmanship that might make it worth a few Brussels bureaucrats translating the chapter on negotiating strategy.

A list of golden rules including “quick negotiations are very bad for one party or the other” and “losers make the first concession on major issues” suggests British intransigence over Brexit may at first continue.

“Do not make the first major concession, make piecemeal concessions with a declining concession pattern and keep all concessions low,” advises the confident-sounding author after a career spent haggling over corporate restructurings at Tate & Lyle. “Make the opposition work for their concessions, and when the deal is struck make them feel that they have done well.”

But some reflections may reassure sceptics worried that the British team is led by hotheads. “Adequate preparation is vital. The first essential step is to view your problem from the perspective of the other side,” writes Davis. “Understanding clearly the intent of the other side is the first step to a mutually successful negotiation and quite often turns a straight win or lose style of negotiation into something more creative and mutually beneficial.”

Other insights perhaps explain the morale-boosting tone adopted in Whitehall of late – something that has baffled opponents and observers alike who sense a weak UK hand. “It is quite normal to feel that the list of demands seems enormous and that it is inconceivable that the stakeholders and various people involved will accept it,” said Davis in 1988. “This concern should be ignored, since at this stage everybody has a lot to lose. That can concentrate minds wonderfully.”

But Davis also hints at the weakness in his future Brexit negotiating strategy, which many see as predicated on a false bluff that the British government is prepared to walk away without a deal.

“The risk for everyone involved [in negotiations] is very large, and this puts a premium on nerve,” wrote the secretary of state. “He who has least to lose always has the upper hand in these circumstances.”

Though not quite as colourful as Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, Davis may also hope his confident prose proves rather less of a hostage of fortune.

US politicians who studied Trump’s fabled negotiating prowess have delighted in pointing out how his healthcare negotiations broke his own golden rule of never seeming too eager to cut a deal. “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead,” he wrote in the 1987 book with ghostwriter Tony Schwartz. “Think big,” he added. “If you’re gonna be thinking anyway, you might as well make it big.”

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