In all the chaos surrounding Brexit, I keep coming back to the same, simple fact: this is essentially a basic failure of project management.

Experts are out of favour right now, but what I’m about to tell you is not expert knowledge: it’s something you instinctively do every day, but perhaps don’t have a name for.

But in Project Management, something I did for 22 years, there is a name for the decisions we all make: The Iron Triangle.

I’ve managed projects to deliver everything from air-traffic control software to stock management and distribution for the world’s largest toy manufacturer. I’ve worked on software for Intel, Microsoft, international charities, hospitals, pension services, banking and warehousing.

At the start of any project, I would draw this diagram. It’s called The Iron Triangle because it has three points, and describes an absolutely unbreakable rule: you can only have 2 things from the Iron Triangle.

Never all three. All three is impossible.

I would show this to the client, and ask: which of these three things do you want to sacrifice.


The reason you can’t have all three is simple: imagine you have a project to build and launch a spaceship.

You can have the spaceship quickly and cheaply: but if you do, we have to reduce the number of things it does. There won’t be enough time or money to do everything.

This is sacrificing quality.

You can have the spaceship cheaply, and with all of the promised qualities and components (speed, payload, safety, etc). But “cheaply” means we have to employ fewer engineers, and can’t invest in the latest tools, so it will take three times longer to complete.

This is sacrificing schedule.

Or you can have your spaceship with all of its qualities and components, and very fast: but that means we have to throw thousands of engineers at it; pay overtime; invest in the latest time-saving gadgets. And that means it will be very expensive.

This is sacrificing price.

I’ve described a complex project: building a spaceship. But the same rule governs something as simple as building a shed in your garden. If you want it cheap, you have to make it yourself, and that means it takes time, because you’re not an expert carpenter. If you want it fast, you can pay an joiner to build it, but that costs more. If you ask your mate Dave to do it, because he’s free on Sunday and has a drill and a book on woodwork, it might be quick and cheap. But the quality will suffer.

You may not have heard of The Iron Triangle, but in every aspect of our lives we make these decisions constantly: price, speed or quality.

The fundamental problem with Brexit is not that it’s impossible: nothing is impossible, and if Remainers tell you it is, they’re not being honest. Of course we can leave the EU. Obviously we can.

But we cannot leave the EU on the basis it was sold to us.

The entire Leave campaign was built around the promise that leaving the EU would be fast, cheap, and give you all of these benefits. It was politically expedient to tell you that, and it won the referendum: but it’s false. And voting to build a spaceship (or deciding you need a shed) is nowhere near as complicated as actually doing it. So at this stage, it really doesn’t matter who won the referendum. I know Leave won it. I’m not arguing about that: what matters is how to deliver it.

We have experimented for 2 years with breaking the Iron Triangle – and this should not shock anybody who has ever attempted to build a shed – we have found it cannot be broken. The lie underpinning Brexit still needs to be resolved.

Theresa May’s deal attempts to resolve it by sacrificing quality. She offered Brexit cheap and fast, but only by slashing away at the things the project was intended to deliver.

And Leavers hate it.

Remainers have repeatedly explained the costs of Brexit, and the price Britain will pay in jobs, investment, cuts, debts, tax increases, security, the NHS, or any combination of those things.

And Leavers hate it.

And finally, there are moves in Parliament to extend the schedule, so we can attempt to meet the quality and price requirements.

And Leavers hate it.

Leavers hate these things because nobody has told them that they have to make a choice. The “what do you want to sacrifice?” question I asked of clients at the beginning of a project was always difficult; but failing to have the conversation made everything far more difficult later. Theresa May should have told voters the truth from the start. She should have set up a cross-party group to find solutions, and she should have set them the task of explaining The Iron Triangle to the public, and ascertaining what the public actually wanted to sacrifice, so we all knew what to expect.

But she didn’t, because she’s a terrible leader who isn’t honest with the public, the press, her party or – probably – with herself. Jeremy Corbyn didn’t explain the Iron Triangle either, for the same reasons. In fact, I can’t find any example of a politician or journalist explaining this, possibly because not one of them has any experience of actually doing this shit.

Avoiding awkward conversations is not leadership: it’s the abdication of leadership, and it’s been going on for far too long in a crisis that is both highly predictable (most people predicted a crisis from the beginning) and highly unpredictable (you can predict chaos will occur, but not what form that chaos will take).

We have no option now but to ask “the client” to choose what to sacrifice. And “the client”, in this case, is the Leave-voting public. We’ve tested to destruction the theory of delivering three mutually incompatible things, and all we’ve found is that it’s impossible – which we knew from the start, but kept on pretending. And now we’ve got even less time and money than when we started, and the question still needs to be faced. The difficult conversation with the client must happen.

It’s your project, Leavers. And this is your Iron Triangle: so it’s up to you to decide what to do.

If you’re a Leaver and are reading this, you may have decided that you want all the qualities you were promised, and don’t want to pay more tax or lose your job: so you’ve decided to extend the schedule. That’s the decision I’d make too, if I was forced to pick a form of Brexit. We don’t have money to sacrifice, not by a long shot; and a limited Brexit has already been rejected by everybody Theresa May has asked.

But there’s really no time-limit on Brexit, except a random one we decided for ourselves. Schedule is the thing that’s easiest to sacrifice.

(Although one year won’t do it: if we need to train to replace the 10,000 EU doctors and 60,000 EU engineers and computer scientists that we rely on every day, we need to start training 11 year old British kids right now. We don’t even have the teachers or schools to do that; by the time they’re qualified, we’ll be able to leave the EU with minimal cost and disruption; so we should plan to leave the EU in 15 years, not 15 months).

But even if you make the choice to sacrifice schedule, at best only 1 out of every 3 Leave voters would agree with you.

Others would demand we leave with all the bells and whistles in 60 days, regardless of cost. Some would insist Brexit should be fast and cheap, and they’re prepared to give up some of the promises made. And obviously, many would completely fail to agree with the premise of The Iron Triangle, and continue to vote for the impossible, then blame reality for being treacherous. As a vocal Remainer on Twitter, I bump into these people constantly, and frankly I’ve given up attempting to reach them. If you want Brexit, it’s your job to reach those people. They simply will not listen to Remainers.

You may not want a Second Referendum, and I don’t blame you for that. It has the potential to be incredibly divisive; and as the question is currently framed, I’m not convinced it will resolve anything.

But the only way to decide which impossible, Iron-Triangle-Breaking part of the Brexit promise we sacrifice is to ask the public.

A People’s Vote could specifically ask voters to choose:

  • Leave the EU now, based on Theresa May’s deal (sacrifice Quality)
  • Postpone Brexit to give us more time to prepare (sacrifice Schedule)
  • Leave at once with no deal (sacrifice Price)
  • Remain in the EU (decide the project is pointless if it doesn’t deliver those impossible promises, and cancel it)

There’s no avoiding this. The decision about the Iron Triangle will happen, whether you vote on it or not. Either we have another referendum and the public decides, or Parliament makes the decision, and you end up feeling cheated.

Or, as is increasingly and terrifyingly likely, the decision is made without any control by anybody – not you, not me, not MPs, not Theresa May – as we crash out without a deal. And that’s the equivalent of the spaceship crashing into a mountain 10 seconds after lift-off: it will be the only impact big enough to shatter every corner of the Iron Triangle, costing us vast amounts of money, a generation of time, and every aspect of our quality of life.

And nobody voted for that.

114 thoughts on “Brexit cannot break the Iron Triangle

  1. Another thing that screams as obvious on the Schedule side is Contingency. May has been asked to estimate how much more schedule she wants. She should estimate high, not just because of the complexity you see but because

    * delivering earlier than promised pleases everyone.
    * Delivering later than promise gets us into our current mess.

    Also she has to bargain with the EU for the extra time, and the EU will (and have already done) talk her down.

    So she’s terrible at this job. She’s making silly mistakes that anyone who’s ever been involved in project work knows. But I guess she has the ERG and DUP breathing down her neck backed by a tabloid press who call Traitor at anyone who questions the idea of breaking the Iron Triangle.

    1. Well I need to read all of this away from a small, quality driven android to make a well informed suggestion.

    2. “The entire Leave campaign was built around the promise that leaving the EU would be fast, cheap, and give you all of these benefits.” – and how many Leavers were foolish enough to believe it? It was obvious from the outset that it was all fantasy and scaremongering. The vast majority of us voted leave on a matter of principle, knowing full well that it would be expensive and painful – much like a trip to the dentist!

      1. Firstly, you don’t know what the “vast majority” voted for, because it wasnt on the referendum. You know what YOU voted for. That’s the entire point of my blog: there is no way to know which version of Brexit people actually want without asking them, and your assumption proves nothing.

        Secondly, if “the vast majority” wanted a trip to the dentist, why didn’t the campaign promise pain? It didn’t. It promised sunlit uplands. Why campaign with a message that is the opposite of what your audience wants? Because the audience DIDN’T want that.

        Thirdly, let’s assume you’re right, and the “vast majority” wanted this pain. With a 52:48 result, your “vast majority” actually turns into a minority of the public.

        You’re making claims you can’t prove, the evidence suggests you’re wrong, and even if you’re right, that simply proves your masochistic group is a minority. Poor arguing, Perer. Poor.

      2. Agreed. We were told it would be difficult and expensive and economically damaging.
        People either did not believe it or accept disruption as a price worth paying for a return of democracy

      3. “we need to train to replace the 10000 EU doctors…”
        Well we should train more of our own doctors, but the false implication is that the existing EU doctors would not be able or willing to work in the EU after Brexit. A silly straw man scaremongering claim, of which we’ve seen far too much. Deceitful.

      4. I work in the software team for a business supplying locum staff to the NHS. The NHS has lost 12,000 EU nationals from its workforce since the referendum, and overseas applications to become an NHS nurse have dropped 94%.

        26% of NHS doctors are immigrants. That’s a huge reliance. And we can’t replace them overnight – it takes 7 years to train as a doctor, assuming you have 4 good science A Levels.

        It is not deceitful. It is actually happening. It might not be the law that EU nationals can’t work, but if you make them unwelcome, they will leave. And they are.

      5. But the majority Was only in England and we are supposed to be in an equal union with Scotland and they voted to stay and have pushed that thought all the way, but have been ignored Democracy!!!

      6. Peter – 1) nobody expects their dentist to pull tooth that don’t have anything wrong with them 2) analogies are surprisingly ineffective at winning arguments.
        Chas, it takes 7 years to train a doctor, care to defer Brexit that long?

    3. Typical claptrap in political “speak”.
      Making things far more complicated than they need to be.
      You have been to far too many management stylised meetings based on American and Japanese hi wiz bullshit

      1. REALLY WANTING things to be simple doesn’t make them simple. If the last 2 years proves nothing else, it proves that.

      2. Nonsense. You are simply in denial. This is THE most coherent description to date, of the Brexit mess. Just wait and see the result at the next referendum. By the way, I wanted to vote leave, but I voted remain because of the incredible rush being foisted on the country. My own estimation was leave, in around 10 years – when we would have had time to properly prepare. I will vote remain again, unless a sensible plan to address all of the associated issues is put forth.

      3. Okay, if Russ is talking bollocks, suggest an alternative. Brexit will be – and is – very expensive. Evidently you’ve failed to notice our entire manufacturing sector has now vanished down the shitter – there are now thousands queuing at Job Centres because Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, Rolls Royce, Airbus (and others that I’ve forgotten) have jumped ship – and the bitter irony here is that the places which rely on manufacturing for jobs are the same places which had the highest Leave votes. Companies don’t want to take the risk – even if Brexit was to be cancelled, our economy would take decades to recover (if it ever recovers at all).
        I’m sorry, but Russ is right; just “getting out” as hard Brexiteers want, will prove to be extremely costly – not just in monetary terms, but through loss of jobs, and a mass exodus of skilled staff.
        I’m pretty certain that you’re the type who’d call a long-term disabled person like me a scrounger, but the fact is that I can’t work, and that I’m currently struggling to eat – why…? Because the uncertainty over Brexit has caused the pound to weaken meaning that food is more expensive. I have a lot of things I need to buy in a month and only £600 to buy them with.
        Hardcore Brexiteers really are perfect examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

      4. He’s actually massively simplified it . I do not think it’s possible to make it any easier to understand.

    4. Surely they’ve dragged their heels long enough and gotten such poor quality that the price must be ok?

      1. No because they haven’t actually started the project yet, they are still trying to work out how to to do it and different actors all want to break a different part of the iron triangle..

        Some of them, like the ERG, pretend the triangle doesn’t exist – they believe,
        or pretend to believe, there is no cost and the suggestion of a schedule is merely a device to frustrate the project..

    5. The Iron Triangle model is flawed.

      Employing time and schedule interchangeably is a grave mistake. Quality is not always compromised by speed of action. Even in the most complex of projects, speed is often essential to achieving the quality standards that are dependent on the opportunity costs of delays. Staying with the visit to the dentist analogy this principle should be manifestly clear. No, scheduling is all about TIMING. The timing of critical interdependencies that optimise the delivery of the measurable project objectived. Similarly cost cannot be measured in sterling alone nor as in this case of complex transformational change, be that attributed to the banker alone but to the entire stakeholder community which in this instance ranges far beyond the shores of the UK.

      No, imo it was not for reasons of ignoring this iron triangle model that the project foundered. It was much further up stream than this. Widespread complex transformational change is only made possible by an envisioning of a FUTURE that is distinctly preferable to the status quo. This FUTURE must be made explicit in the project blueprint that is sufficiently realistic and aspirational to sustain stakeholder commitment
      through the inevitable challenges and setbacks on the road to this brighter future. Brexit unfortunately was sold on a promise to return to a PAST! A past that never existed. Take-back-control is the mantra! Continued commitment to this mantra requires it’s disciples to never leave home without some heavy duty rose tinted glasses. Check this out for the reality of lives in the UK prior to EU membership – a time when we had complete control…
      The Brexit project I fear is fatally doomed.

      1. @Margaret . I agree that the Iron Triangle model is flawed. In politics there is only one thing needed, and that is ‘will’. However I do not see that poverty in the 1960’s and 70’s has any relationship to the EU.
        Most people were housed in those days, except for a few tramps who chose to live outside. Today hundreds of thousands are forced to sleep on the streets every night, which is a much worse poverty.
        That sort of poverty started to vanish in the early 1980’s, not because we had joined the Common Market, but because we had an oil bonanza in the UK. Billions of pounds were pumped into the UK economy from North Sea Oil, and Gas.

  2. Yes. The iron triangle is new to me but its very useful. This is why a Japanese firm wil take a long time arriving at consensus before going ahead with any major project
    The triangle is very like the Change Equation. I use that a lot. They are both invaluable in understanding what has to be – or should have been -dome for complex projects to succeed.
    I’m trying to persuade people around Corbyn and mcDonnell and Long-Bailey to adopt the Change Euqation as a guide for avoiding disasters in their commitent to the immensely complex economic, social, operational and ecological transformations of our society .
    I think they are willing to learn but its important to recognise that through no fault of their own, they lack any understanding of or experience in managing complex systems changes .
    As someone once said, they don’t know what they need to know and thus cannot work from a shared definition of the problems they are facing. .

    1. It is deceitful cos no one is suggesting that overseas staff will not be welcome to continue working in NHS. No one, that is, except remains stirring up trouble and promoting a straw man argument.
      Aside from that the UK should be training it’s own staff. We have been very selfish in actively recruiting skilled staff from countries that can I’ll afford to spare them

      1. You clearly haven’t read this blog. I cover that. No point discussing anything with you.

  3. Why so fearful of leaving on WTO terms. This actually matches exactly what people wanted when they voted leave.
    Cashing in not crashing out. Besides many many preparations have been made already. The county and EU are ready. It’s just the MPs who are to scared.

    1. The head of the WTO warns about WTO terms, because they’re calamitous. If they were any good, other trade deals would not exist. WTO (in the estimation of the WTO) would shrink the UK economy by 8%, which is twice as big as the biggest recession the UK has ever suffered. This is NOT what people voted for. The official Leave campaign said “nobody is talking about leaving the Single Market”, and promised Article 50 wouldn’t be triggered until all trade deals were completed.

      1. Sorry that’s a lot of scaremongering rubbish. We are the 5th largest economy in the world. The British people have more belief in this country than our craven MPs.
        People voted to leave the EU * regardless* of the warnings of woe.

        These economic arguments to water down brexit are illegitimate.

        We did not vote for a deal. Any deal the EU willingly agrees to will be punitive. As every 5 year old child can see.
        I don’t blame the EU particularly. That is consistent with their previous behaviour which is why the majority or people despise much of what the EU represents.

        Let’s lift our eyes from our shoes – to a bright independent future working and trading with our friends around the world not least in Europe

      2. We are the 6th (probably 8th after figures revised this year) biggest economy. But there are 3 economic superpowers – USA, China and the EU. Between them they are 73% of the global economy. Britain’s economy is slightly less than 4% of the global economy. Just saying “6th biggest” means nothing if you don’t also recognise the vast difference between number 6 and number 6 in the charts.

        This is the equivalent of Wisconsin deciding to quit America and fight for itself… USA, China and EU would crush it.

        If believing in things made them successful, the England Football Team would have every world cup going. But we don’t because (just as with the economy) there is a vast difference between the might teams that dominate the global game, and plucky England in 8th place.

        And the guys in 8th place get NOTHING.

      1. A good deal is clearly optimal for all. But the EU will never willingly agree to a deal which is not punitive. Everyone knows that. Junker and co have said it.

        Time to walk tall. Do as the country voted and rake back our sovereignty.

        Pretend we live in a democracy.

    2. I’m sick of seeing this “what people wanted when they voted”. It is a plain lie. Leave campaign did not mention it. When Cameron spoke about having to leave SM/CU it was called Project Fear.

      Leave promised best deal ever and £350m a week on the side of a bus.

      1. Chas appears to have turned comments off on his posts somehow.
        But Chas, should you ever deign to come back, let me just remind you of something a wise man once said:
        “If a country cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”.
        Who was this sage…? Why none other than Dave Davis. It’s probably the only objectively true thing he’s ever said.
        Secondly, no country on Earth trades solely under WTO rules (for reasons Russ has already eloquently explained).
        Thirdly: we were only the 5th largest economy on Earth BECAUSE WE’RE MEMBERS OF THE EU (and the EEC and EEA before that)! Every single trade deal we have is because we’re members of the EU.
        Why would any country trade with us (a nation of 66m) over the EU (a trading bloc of 27(excluding the UK) countries with a population of around 520m)…?
        I honestly don’t understand why Leavers find this such a hard concept to grasp – it’s so simple a child could understand it. We won’t have the leverage outside the EU, because we’re a very small country. Look, if you were a business, who would you rather sell your goods to – a small local store, or a large chain…?
        Honestly, the BS I’ve heard from Leavers:
        – The EU is a dictatorship because I never voted for Tusk/Juncker/Barnier (er, but presumably you voted for your MEP…? It’s slightly more democratic than voting for your MP because Euro elections use PR)
        – The EU is fascist because Italy, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia, Bulgaria, etc., have right-wing governments (I’m still trying to fathom what, exactly, this has to do with the EU – are these people implying that the EU has interfered in national elections in Eastern Europe…?! Is this some kind of whacky conspiracy theory of which, hitherto, I have been blissfully unaware…?).
        – The EU is making it impossible for the UK to leave because it wants to use us as a warning to prevent other countries from trying to leave.

  4. Can you do an Iron Triangle based on Project EU (staying in) as that also has a choice. Having that comparison can give more clarity as to which route is more beneficial.

    1. Surely “Staying In” can benefit from having plenty of available time. There’s no deadline involved. We can work on reform at whatever pace is needed.

      1. But of course David Cameron tried that didn’t he & the response was a big 2 fingers from the unelected bigots!

      2. Sigh… “unelected”…

        MEPs are elected, just as UK MPs are. If you didn’t vote, that’s your fault for paying no attention to your own democracy.

        Commissioners are the equivalent of permanent secretaries in a UK Govt Dept – the senior civil servant responsible for carrying out actions.

        The president of the EU is the equivalent of our PM, and like our PM and cabinet, you don’t directly elect them. You elect an MP (or MEP) who then appoints a PM and Cabinet.

        Not understanding how our democracy works is one of the biggest failings in the UK. A mandatory course of civics lessons would do us the world of good. But in its absence, please Google the basics, so you don’t make silly claims that are incredibly easy to disprove. It doesn’t help your cause.

  5. Almost your entire opinion is corroborated — except that:-
    i) it looks as if the Price will be paid by *all* UKGB taxpayers;
    ii) no chance of ‘Leavers’ submitting a plan with their agreed values for all your variables (& the rest!), let alone a plan agreed with Remainers.

  6. The great Iron Triangle idea has always had another dimension: Risk. (Risk that the information and assumptions underlying any of its three points may change.)
    In the case in point there have been many instances of information and assumptions which have changed, rendering the most risk-free option ‘abandon this project’ by far the most attractive.

  7. Almost your entire opinion is corroborated — except that:-
    i) no chance of ‘Leavers’ submitting a plan with one value agreed from their several suggested variations for all the above variables (& the rest!); &
    ii) let alone a plan agreed with Remainers.

    1. errata:
      i) My mistake corrected:
      “… for *each of* the above variables…”; and
      ii) Your wishful paragraph:
      “It’s your project, Leavers. And this is your Iron Triangle: so it’s up to you to decide what to do.”
      I wish it were true that each one of us could be the arbiter of one’s own EU membership on an individual basis…

  8. While I accept much of the article’s arguments, I don’t see it as addressing the most fundamental problem: the UK *cannot* leave the EU *and* improve as a result. All Brexits end up with us worse of than we would be by Remaining.
    This article is pointing that that the degree to which things get worse can be mitigated, but at the cost of one of schedule or price.

    1. I think that’s covered under the “time” component, as in: it might take an incredibly long time to make up for the loss. Even centuries. Obviously, that makes the benefit of leaving non-existent, but it’s still part of the time factor anyway.

  9. Nice analogy so far as it goes.
    The problem is not actually “the” Iron Triangle, but that there are at least five Iron Triangles simultaneously: not one project, but at least five, and the project outcomes are mutually contradictory products. There are binary questions to be answered first, regarding which aim has priority, before any of the Iron Triangles can come into play, Principally between “Free Trade” (hard Brexit), “UK unity”, Xenophobia, Parliamentary majority and Party unity which are mutually incompatible. England can have “Free Trade” (hard Brexit) only when both the UK dissintegrates into its constituent parts (Irish Unity) and if the parliamentary majority (DUP) is sacrificed. “Soft Brexit” is only available without Xenophobia and probably only with the collapse of the (Conservative) Party. There is no such thing as continuity in quality between “soft” and “hard” Brexit. Looks like we need tools from project portfolio management rather than the details of project managment.

  10. Very clearly explained. The iron triangle is of great use when planning any complex project and I used a similar technique in planning mine.

    However it is of little use at the moment in this context as it presupposes that a clear goal is in mind.

    Until leavers agree on what leave means there is no project to manage.

    1. Exceptional analysis. One of many tools used by project managers. Working in education and previously in the military the fundamental problem is that those who lead have no project management skills. Or do and are just disingenuous, considering brexiters have had 40 years to plan. I suspect the outcome they seek is so unpalatable (Singapore model) they don’t want to communicate it. Hencevthey will want to crash out in any way.
      I like the equation for change. In the case of brexit: no vision => confusion, no skills => anxiety…..
      Fundamentally: fail to plan, plan to fail.

  11. But the Iron Triangle does not include democracy. If the UK was a business that would make sense, but democracies are not about making money.

    We could turn the UK into a casino like Monte Carlo if we just wanted money.

    The UK is a ‘Democracy not an ‘Accountancy.

    1. As the blog says: voting for a thing is not as easy as actually doing it. All I’m talking about is doing it. What people voted for is irrelevant if it’s impossible to deliver what they voted for. People would vote for zero tax and an endlessly funded NHS, but those things are mutually incompatible. I’m not questioning democracy, just practicality.

      1. Are you saying that it is impossible for any country to leave the EU? Or for any country to prosper outside the EU? All these arguments are about money, not quality of life, and democracy.

        The UK needs to start producing more of its own food, unsustainable growth based on cheap EU labor is not the way forward.

      2. I suggest you read the blog again (or maybe for the first time). I literally say it is not impossible. And I also argue that if we want to replace things provided by the EU, we should start training people right now.

        I’m against Brexit, but this article isn’t about that. It’s about how to achieve it. Either you didn’t read it, or didn’t understand it.

      3. The sad fact is that people who don’t understand the EU, even after the subject has dominated the media for three years, do not want to understand the EU. Which reinforces their wish to leave it.

      4. Where does more (hard Brexit) or less (soft Brexit) national sovereignty, or more national influence in the EU (Remain) or less national influence (Leave) fit in the iron triangle of price, schedule or quality? i.e which of the 3 produces more or less sovereignty that leavers voted for? I’m not sure that it’s easy to fit the amorphous concept of sovereignty that has driven the argument for Leave in to your framework. How is more or less sovereignty, over trade policy or immigration or law making connected to the price or quality of, or schedule for establishing ‘more’ sovereignty? To my mind the Brexit paradox is a bit more complex – between two different principles – sovereignty and power. The paradox is that an increase in abstract national legal sovereignty leads to a loss real world national power. More legal sovereignty over trade policy and law making, implies, paradoxically a loss of real world power and influence over the trade policy and law making that membership of the EU provides. The UK’s small size, in comparison to the 3 big trading blocs in the world, means our power is limited in any of them but the most is on offer in the EU. Abstract sovereignty over trade policy, law or immigration cannot change that. For the UK to trade with any of the blocs it will submit to their legal regulatory frameworks not them to us. Market access is proportionate to conformance. More market access is possible with the EU than with the US, China or Japan, because the EU has more common rules and the strongest legal framework governing the 4 freedoms that make more shared market access possible. We have more influence over one of the frameworks that determine non tariff barriers to trade as an EU member than we can over the 2 big frameworks outside the EU. That is something that is not captured by debates about national sovereignty.
        Similarly I don’t see where price, schedule or quality relates to how Brexit delivers the legal sovereignty over immigration policy that motivated the leave campaign. The issue again is one more of how sovereignty relates to power. More legal sovereignty over immigration does not deliver more power over the forces that drive migration – wage levels, growth levels and skills shortages. After Brexit exercising a new found sovereignty over immigration policy by reducing EU immigration (with the intention of reducing pressure on low wages, on services or community cohesion) would have perverse consequence for the financial means to exercise that sovereignty – tax resources. EU workers provide £2,300 more income tax on average than UK workers, fill skills gaps and drive growth. Those taxes pay for the real world exercise of national sovereignty – setting and delivering national priorities – national security, universal services, and, why not?, money to fund a migration impact fund, to police a higher minimum wage, to defend worker’s collective bargaining rights and to fund in work benefits to compensate for any downward pressure on low wages from EU labour mobility. The main point is that more formal sovereignty over immigration does not deliver real world power over the forces that drive it.
        I like your model for revealing some of the trade offs that have to be made to pursue Brexit that were obscured by promises that quality, cheapness and speed could all be delivered but I’m not sure a key aspect of the Brexit trade off is best captured by the iron triangle. I think it misses how Brexit would deliver an increase in formal national legal sovereignty over trade policy, immigration and law making but that it would do so at the price of a loss of real world wealth and power to exercise that sovereignty. The loss of wealth that frictionless EU market access generates. The loss of power that UK voting rights in EU elections provide, UK power in Commission appointments and UK power through our democratically elected representative on the council of ministers that sets the EU agenda. The EU is the only one of the three main blocs in which we could have that power and democratic influence. It is also happens to be the only one of the three of which we are actually an integral geographic, historic and social part.

      5. The fundamental issue is the same: you personally may have voted for sovereignty, but there’s absolutely no way to determine that other people did. You’re just guessing. I’ve seen data ( showing only 35% of Leave voters wanted to leave the Single Market at the time of the referendum… but we have Leavers insisting “the people” voted for it. They didn’t. You’re filling in gaps in your knowledge of voter intentions with wishful thinking. Pretty much half didn’t want to leave at all, and of those that did only 1/3 wanted the Hard Brexit we persue now. That’s 1/6th of the voters.

        It’s the same issue we have with The Iron Triangle. You, personally, may choose to sacrifice (for example) cost, but we have no way of knowing what anybody else chooses to sacrifice. And until we do, 2/3 of Leave voters won’t like the decisions made, and none of the Remainers will. Which again leaves us doing a form of Brexit supported by only 1/6th of voters.

        And it is not undemocratic to complain about that. 1/6th is not representative. It is not undemocratic to suggest we actually find out which form of Brexit (if any) people ACTUALLY WANT.

  12. I still blame that big red coach advert ,that mislead a lot of people thinking the N H S would get all that money ,What a load of lies .

    1. I agree the fundamental issue is the same, that this was a binary referendum for a non binary question and there is no way to know for certain which version of Brexit leave voters were voting for although polls give a good indication. I was suggesting there is another basis for analysing the nature of the trade off between different versions of Brexit that relate to sovereignty that the Iron Triangle does not capture, not questioning that fundamental point. I posted on your thread earlier the poll showing 35% of leave voters wanted to leave the single market to make the same point regarding all the mutually incompatible soft to hard versions of Brexit leave voters were voting for. Worse than 1/6th of voters being used to represent ‘the people’ is the prospect that 100,000 voters (Conservative party members) may soon choose our next prime minister, one who may well claim that this 1/6th of the population is ‘the people’ and so ‘no-deal’ has a democratic imperative, rather than the entire electorate.

  13. Interesting approach to a problem, but I believe a flawed argument as you talk as if leaving the EU is the project. I believe joining in the first place and staying in has been and currently is the project. There have been many projects over the years where the further work and spending has just been justified by the fact of how much has been spent on it already. Failure in these projects are recognized far too late and the abandonment all the more painful. Take the MOD project, Nimrod, vast sums of money was spent, and it almost worked. Then the requirements were changed, and changed again, time after time, until it simply did not work anymore, and finally had to be abandoned and scrapped. I look at the EU in its similarities to Nimrod. It was a good idea in the beginning, but as more and more changes are made, treaties introduced, etc, it has become unworkable, and now dangerous to our fundamental principals, and the project has to be abandoned now before it is too late. The problem now is the government trying to start a new project at the same time, and they cannot decide on the format of the new project. The two should be separated, abandon the existing project, then start a new one.

    1. In principle you are right but you ignore the concept of evaluation. In order to ‘abandon’ a project, the costs & benefits and risks involved in staying must be assessed carefully against the same things for abandoning. Then if the latter is judged to be a reasonable approach a Project Initiation Document should be prepared and, if in a democracy the PID would be put to the voters. In 2016 nothing of the sort happened. That’s why we are in this mess.

      1. You are quite correct, however, in 2016 the cost & benefits of staying were assessed by the public and voted on to abandon the project. But this alone does not reach the conclusion that there should be any new project (PID), something else should trigger a new project. Take Nimrod, it was abandoned, but this did not trigger an entirely new project, we just bought in AWACS, a tried and tested solution to a similar problem.

    2. Blind Brexit. Let us say there are 4 doors leading out of the EU for the UK. You’re saying, in effect, just leave but that’s not possible without choosing one of the doors. Each choice of door has very different consequences that I have had no democratic say over unless we get a confirmatory vote. It is not possible to start a new project without choosing, or as I would prefer voting for one of the doors, or not to leave given the choice of one door rather than all doors.

      1. There is in effect just one door leading out of the EU, but many possible doors to get back in. If your house were on fire, you would not be worried about what exit you took, you would not argue with your family about what is the best door, but you may be more considered in choosing your entry after the fire is out to do the repairs.

      2. The house is not on fire. Even if it were, if the most obvious door available was to a balcony with a 3 story drop onto concrete I would suggest to my family that just because we had agreed it was time to get out, given we had discovered the way out led to certain death, we should change our minds and try fighting the fire instead. But the UK ‘house’ is not on fire. If we Revoke Art. 50 we can stay as long as want and will not burn to death. The vote to leave in general has led to a debate with the EU and in parliament about the various actual and particular doors out. Now we find out there is no majority for any particular door out in parliament. But I have had no say by which door, if any, we choose to leave. There has been no democratic mandate for any particular door. All we have are some polls from after the referendum. For instance about 35% of leave voters, or 18% of those who voted, said they wanted a no deal exit at the time. So a no deal exit would hardly be democratic now. There was a majority to leave when all the doors out of the EU were on offer. But that is not an offer it is possible to deliver. We cannot leave from more than one door. Having another referendum is no betrayal of the first, in fact quite the opposite. We cannot get a properly democratic decision until we find out if there is a majority for leaving by one particular door.

  14. The part on the Iron Triangle is fine. When this article moves on to what we need to do it becomes laughable.

    The assumption there is that we will cut ALL contact with european countries and will have to replace all doctors, nurses etc. Some may leave but not all of them unless we act like absolute idiots towards them. Yes we need to cut immigration but we need to cut out those who don’t have the skills we require or will not integrate culturally. The vast majority there come from non-EU countries and to do that we need to sharpen up our politicians.

    1. Well, I work for a business that provides resources and staffing to the NHS. The NHS has lost just under 12,000 EU staff since the referendum. At current rates of training for UK staff, it’ll take 17 years to replace them.

      So it’s not laughable at all. It’s real. It’s happening now. Not because it’s mandatory, but because lots of us have voluntarily become deeply, publicly, boastfully unpleasant to non-Britons.

      You seem to suggest we can pick and choose who comes here, as if we are the only people making a choice: the immigrants make a choice too. The more unpleasant you make it, the fewer will want to be here. And the people with the greatest skills have the greatest choice, cos they’re wanted everywhere: the very people you want to attract will be the most repelled.

      Also consider: doctors have husbands, wives and kids, and their families might not be doctors. What do we tell them? “You’re welcome, doctor, but your husband is ‘only’ a plasterer and your son is ‘only’ a shop worker, and we don’t want people like that “?

      How’s that going to attract skilled workers? Would you risk the life of your children because the Belgian pediatrician had a family you disapproved of, so you chased them out of the country?

      There’s a logical pathway here, and I suggest more people follow it.

      1. You’re wasting our time, Steve, regurgitating your irrelevant (and totally incorrect opinions on what’s wrong in the EU) instead of addressing the three points of the Iron Triangle. Typical Leaver feeding on nonsense you’ve read somewhere. Despite publicity in the right wing and social media, most citizens of the EU, and every government, is very happy to stay as they are. The British project needs to be examined. You’re not questioning it. Goodbye.

      2. And (writing as a British born immigrant in New Zealand) dont forget you’ll inevitably lose your own trained staff to countries all over the world. And that’s not a “maybe”, its been happening for years, it will just accelerate as the prospects for those who stay in the UK diminish.

      3. This, precisely. And thanks for articulating this so well. I see , hear, read people behaving as though we were the ones doing the choosing, as though everyone else in the EU is clamouring to come here. We are no longer very attractive and the more well qualified and skilled people are, the more options they have. I too see people becoming ‘deeply, publicly, boastfully unpleasant to non-Britons’ and it’s shameful. It’s as though they don’t realise or don’t care that they can be heard, read, judged across the channel. We’ve become the embarrassing elderly uncle at the Christmas party, who thinks all the girls fancy him when in fact they pity him and are irritated by him in equal measure. Not only that, but our own brightest and best will go too – are already leaving – because they don’t like what we’re becoming and they have options. The situation is slightly different here in Scotland – we’re polling 72% remain right now and are doing what we can to make people from the EU welcome. To build bridges instead of demolishing them. But we’re being totally ignored at Westminster. Increasingly, we see Brexit as an English problem that is being foisted on us, in spite of any suggested compromise.

  15. Most people had made their minds up about wanting to leave the EU long before the referendum was announced.
    No one voted because of promises about life after Brexit.

    Everyone who voted in the referendum had lived in the EU for decades. They knew what life was like being part of the EU, and they wanted out.

    hundreds of thousands of Labour supporters had been forced to vote for David Cameron, just to get a chance to leave the EU. Had Miliband also offered a referendum he would have won that election, and been PM now.

    Over 25 million people voted for the two major parties who supported Brexit in the last general election.

    Conservatives Votes – 13,667,213
    Labour Votes – 12,874,985.

    Only a small minority voted for an anti Brexit Party, the Lib Dems Votes – 2,371,772

    1. Before the referendum was called the EU didn’t make it into the top 20 issues people cared about. To this day I have literally never heard anybody tell me one thing in their life that was affected by being in the EU, and I doubt you can tell me anything either. It is, and always has been, incredibly unimportant.

      But the polling shows Remain lead by 12% now

      1. Many people who voted for Brexit said had never voted in general elections before, and they would certainly not take part in polls. I live in Chelsea. London, but in the last few years it could be Victorian London. Beggars kneeling on the pavements clutching rosary beads, others prostrate on the pavements with hungry signs.

        I, and probably you, I suspect are privileged, holidays in the EU, holiday homes, EU retirement plans, children going to EU universities. Before the referendum I toured the UK, and there are vast tracts of poverty, deprivation, and homelessness. This after 40 years in the EU, with Labour,Tory, lib-Dem/Tory governments.

        Before you say that is not the fault of the EU, do you really expect people living in poverty and homelessness to vote remain so that the elite who are doing well should carry on with their privileged lifestyles, EU retirement plans, holidays etc?

      2. No, actually. I was born in what was then England’s most deprived town, my dad was a mechanic, my mum long-term disabled. No member of my family went to university, and I only had second-hand clothing until I left school, aged 16, and started working in a shop. I am about as far from The Elite as you can get, and I absolutely promise you I’m not exaggerating.

        But inequality in the UK is completely unrelated to the EU. If it was, similar inequality would happen throughout the EU, and it doesn’t (see link). I have absolutely no debate about the poverty – I was born in it – but blame the right things. The EU isn’t it.

    2. Steve, your regurgitation of the favourite (and typically misleading) straplines of Leave campaigners in 2017 has nothing whatsoever to do with the Iron Triangle or project management. I entirely agree with you about deprivation and the income inequalities fostered by Tory and, to a lesser extent Labour governments, but the thing that’s proved by 17.4 million people having been told and sold something that had nothing to do with the EU, is that normal project management works only when there is a free flow of accurate information.

      1. No one was ‘sold’ anything, as I said most people knew which way they would vote long before the referendum was announced. As I said all those who voted had been living in the EU for decades, why would they need to be told what the EU is all about, they have lived the dream, but are not happy with it.

        It is not just in the UK that people are not happy, over is happening all over the EU.

      2. @londonmoss. People who do not want dialogue are usually fascists. You seem to want to only hear your own views, reflected back to you as if you are talking into a mirror,which I find odd!!!

  16. Leavers would have sacrificed price.

    Leavers would have sacrificed schedule.

    Leavers would not have sacrificed quality.

    We just want to leave as the vote says. Cost and schedule were secondary. Which leave 2 of your triangle options open for negotiation.

    You have made a classic project management mistake of assuming you know the minds of others.

    1. I don’t know the mind of others.

      You don’t know the mind of others.

      That’s literally the point of the article. You have made the classic mistake of reading what you wanted to read, rather than the actual words I wrote.

  17. There is something basically wrong with the ‘iron triangle’ theory as regards Brexit, and that is the assumption, that ‘we cannot leave the EU on the basis it was sold to us’.

    The fact is that the booklet telling us the dire consequences of leaving the EU was sent to every household in the country.

    Brexit was sold to us as an economic and social disaster, but the silent majority voted for it anyway. I do not want a so called ‘Hard Brexit’, but Brexit we must have

    ‘We were told we ‘would have Brexit’, ‘and told this by the same people who lectured us on ‘how bad’ it would be’.

    Any Brexit must now be better than no Brexit.

    1. Leaving aside the “because we voted for it” answer, can you tell me WHY “any Brexit is better than no Brexit”? Seriously, do it without telling me we voted for it – I know we voted for it, but that doesn’t answer the question. We could vote to make cats talk, but cats still can’t talk. Voting for something doesn’t make it practical. So tell me WHY “any Brexit is better than no Brexit” without mentioning voting.

      1. Sadly, Steve is just another stubborn Leave Troll, just like the rest – perfectly poised to change the subject. He has no interest in the Iron Triangle, all he wants to do is re-vomit all the old Leave claptrap just so he can feel comfortable in his own skin. Deep down he knows leaving the EU carries project risks and is very likely to fail. Best not to feed him.

  18. Why do things have to be ‘practical’. As you said it is possible to leave the EU, and without having a crystal ball none of us can see into the future?

    People sometimes want things instinctively. As I said world overpopulation is helping to destroying the planet. Young people are unsure what they want, many of them are worried about climate change, but support unsustainable economic growth.

    Personally I think that every country in the world needs to change course, wealth does not equate to happiness, and most people are not happy.

    Maybe a less wealthy UK would not take part in so many wars, would think more about the environment, who knows. I think with Brexit people have asked for one thing, and that is a ‘change of direction.’

    A so called ‘peoples vote’, would the new 9 million pound booklet to every household advise us to leave this time?

    I am hoping for the first real Labour government for decades, outside the EU. We can then re-nationalize rail, gas, electricity, which we cannot do if we remain in the EU.

    1. Things have to be “practical” because things that aren’t practical cannot be done. That’s literally what practical means.

      We can nationalise inside the EU. We nationalised the East Coast Mainline a couple of years ago. Every claim you’ve made about the EU is based on falsehoods and absence of basic facts. It’s genuinely scary how absolutely certain you are, yet how fundamentally uninformed.

      1. Switzerland illustrates how Britain’s railways could be renationalised ‘if’ the UK negotiated an exemption from opening up its railways to competition as part of its Brexit agreement.

        The Swiss Federal Railway is an example of a unified national railway company that brings together track and trains.

        Perhaps ‘practical’ is the wrong word to use in your triangle, ‘possible’ is a better word.

      2. I repeat, we can nationalise railways right now. We did it in 2018. Here’s a link.

        Rather than expending energy blaming the EU for things they aren’t responsible for, or blaming them for creating imaginary regulations that you mistakenly believe stop us from doing things that we have ACTUALLY DONE, why not use that energy to find out some real facts. And then maybe you won’t vote against your self-interests.

      3. My reading of the fourth rail package is that it categorically seeks to dismantle incumbent state monopolies in other EU countries. This rules out reinstating mainland Britain’s old state monopoly, British Rail. While public sector organisations will still be able to run rail services, any service or route will need to be contracted out and not simply awarded.

        Most people in the UK know the ‘real facts’ about the EU, we were told in a booklet. Self-interest is the real problem. These are the facts about being part of the EU that we were all told in the booklet.

      4. Almost every country in Europe has a national, central rail service. We can do it now. The EU might encourage us not to, but can’t prevent it.

  19. It was a good piece but I do no agree about your iron triangle, as I personally voted out because I wanted Europe to form a much closer union and the UK are very anti. I the future, like Scotland many years ago, I see countries dissolving their governments but that’s probably 50 years or more away still.

    I think most people picked one thing that they considered the most important, NHS money, European court, immigration and that choose which way they voted. No one saw the tin can being kick down the street for three years because MPs wanted to water down what a vote to leave the EU meant to them.

    Three days after the vote with should have left with no deal, and started trade talks on sorting out the mess as quickly as possible.

    1. As you point out, everybody had their own opinions, and the referendum doesn’t tell you what they are. You want No Deal and to leave the Single Market, but only 35% of Leave voters (therefore only 18% of all overs) wanted that at the referendum – see the link below.

      We cannot possibly know what people want now, because we haven’t asked them… which is the entire point of the post. You might not agree with The Iron Triangle, but the problem with reality is that it keeps on happening whether you agree with it or not. And this is reality.

    2. At least in the UK we know who is likely to become PM.

      Who, in the UK, remembers voting in Herman Achille, Count Van Rompuy as President of the European Council?

      1. Roy Jenkins was president of the EU. There are 28 nations, so a 1/28 chance of having a British presidency. But what does it matter: it’s a largely ceremonial role. Can you tell me one actual thing in your life that has been affected by the President of the EU being from Luxembourg? Or is it possible you’re getting overexcited about something that’s completely irrelevant to your existence?

  20. An impressive blog followed by a clear and balanced set of responses to questions and attacks, (supported by actual evidence. – quite refreshing and rare on social media these days). If there is to be a people’s vote will you please volunteer to be involved in the tv debate?

  21. Just a heartfelt “thank you” for such a terrific article …and also the Covent and balanced responses thereafter. I’m absolutely in favour of more data (and transparency, accountability etc) to make democracy better – more powers to your elbow!

  22. Now that I see our host is a hipster it all makes sense. However the government did say that staying or leaving the EU was our choice, and they would carry out our wishes.

  23. Being picky
    Quality in business speak is conformance to spec. You mean features.
    Beyond that it’s a lovely analysis thanks

  24. @Catherine Czerkawska -You seem to be another member of the elite. You say that we are ‘building bridges’ here in Scotland, but 43,000 people in Scotland became homeless last year.

    It is not bridges that we need, as with the rest of the UK, it is ‘houses’. How can the UK take part in the freedom of movement when we have no housing.

    Do we expect EU workers to live in tents? If we do then all the major parks should provide facilities, and security for these tent cities.

  25. I am against the EU on global grounds. I believe that growth, based on an ever increasing population, is unsustainable ,and is destroying the planet.

    Like Japan, every country in the world must learn to live and use aging populations. Every country including the UK must produce enough basic foods to feed its own populations. The UK is going to run out of drinking water soon which is another problem.

    World overpopulation is encouraged by the constant striving for growth.

    1. You’re against the EU on the grounds of something totally unrelated to the EU.

      I tend to agree about growth, but we only tackle global issues by cooperating, and transnational bodies such as the EU are our best engine for such cooperation. Every country fighting for it’s own survival in bitter competition certainly won’t produce globally beneficial outcomes.

      1. I see that censorship has now taken place on this blog to block free speech.

      2. Please note, the above comment was originally 12,000 words long and included an infallible plan for peace between Israel and Palestine, a terrific risotto recipe, and a way to add 2 inches in length and one in girth. But I censored it, like a bloody fascist.

      3. My comment was 29 words long, but you don’t like free speech I see. This is the problem with people who think they are always right, they cannot allow others to speak.

      4. Silly person. I’m approving every comment, I just happen to disagree with some stuff, and say so: which is the definition of free speech.

      5. This one 16/04/2019 at 1:54 pm
        Your comment is awaiting moderation.
        That would made thing simpler, but the people of Northern Ireland would never agree to a referendum to become a united island of Ireland, let alone vote for it.

      6. Don’t think I saw that. If I didn’t approve it, it wasn’t deliberate. I’ll see if I can find it now… or you can start your own blog.

  26. Interesting. The takeaway is that we can’t do without the loss of engineers doctors etc. Add to this the constant bombardment about loss of EU grants and we have a perfectly engineered trap. Obvious to most. If you have done an article on how we got to this state I would genuinely like to read that. I like the article and it is a brilliant way of looking at the problem. My thinking at the moment is this. You accept we are part of a new super state but you need to stop this individual country nonsense if we decide to stay. Or we take the hit as you say in financial and quality terms. We learn to live within our means and build for the future. Personally I like option two but the way this is set up and with most people drowning in debt superstate here we come.

  27. Hi Russ … I very much and agree with this concept of the iron triangle; you’ll no doubt already anticipating the ‘however’, and you’ll be right.

    You’ve talked about the schedule, but in perhaps too simplistic a way? The Belfast (Good Friday Agreement) ties us to EU membership. As it is a peace treaty only, with no reference to trade arrangements, it exists in treaty form as a solemn promise between two sovereign nations. It’s unimpeachable in international law, registered with the United Nations and protected as it is under the VCLT. It’s detailed in the document known as the British-Irish Agreement, and I quote …

    … ‘Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union;’

    This is the reason for the phrase ‘unless of until’ in relation to the backstop clause of the Withdrawal Agreement.

    The real schedule then was never any date in March, April, May, or October this year, but the date at which the GFA reaches its conclusion, which expressly means the day that the people of Northern Ireland agree by referendum to become a united island of Ireland.

    1. That would made thing simpler, but the people of Northern Ireland would never agree to a referendum to become a united island of Ireland, let alone vote for it.

      1. Thanks … recent polls (such as these things are) are identifying a shift in thinking brought about by Brexit. I do think that the life expectancy of the GFA is currently unkowable. But anyway, I hope you’ll accept my wider point.

      2. This one? The one that’s on the site and I’ve publicly replied to?

      3. Hi Scot … having thought about your comment further, the people of Northern Ireland have already given consent to a self-determination referendum when they had the previous referendum in 98 – it’s cemented into the GFA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s