George Pascoe-Watson: Theresa May is desperate to avoid a messy divorce

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 23 January 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

With her media strategy and her calls to EU leaders, the PM is doing her best to take the heat out of Brexit.

-- THE INSIDER --

Theresa May thinks "our moment is now". Brexit, she has come to believe, is the opportunity, not the threat.

Today the first steps in an Industrial Strategy will be taken. What will we make, where will we make it and to whom will we sell it? And what skills do our kids need to have to make that happen?

This is what Brexit means. These are the questions facing Theresa May's government as they launch the Industrial Strategy today.

Defining the type of economy we will need having left the EU behind is central to our success. Nissan made a big impact on Mrs May early on in her term. They told her they have factories in France lying empty because they won't put their faith in French workers. British employees are well-educated, focused, hard-working and put in a shift. Not so other EU countries.

She's got absolute belief that trade deals will come and we will be on the right side of the argument. But look to the bigger picture and see the conundrum facing Mrs May. She loves the headlines she enjoyed last week. Loves them. What's not to like when you're a relatively new Prime Minister?

European leaders and their advisers have been left in no doubt about Theresa May's "Iron Lady" stance on Brexit negotiations. Who says? The British Press, that's who.

Our most popular newspapers gave Mrs May two days of the front page treatment - declaring her Brexit address the defining moment for her Premiership and Britain's future. Everything turned on her line "no deal is better than a bad deal", coupled with the not-at-all-veiled threat that the UK will become a super low tax tiger economy if we don't get what we want.

Our European counterparts unsurprisingly reacted a day later with a volley of counterthreats. But look more closely and there's another, far more accurate picture. Mrs May is going out of her way to avoid letting the British media set out her stall for her.

In a way, she can't afford the headlines she's won. These headlines and the treatment of her as Britain's fearless heroine are not at all helpful to her strategy overseas. Equally, of course, they are very welcome to her political team who only have an eye for ‘Brand May’ and her soaring opinion poll lead over Jeremy Corbyn's dying Labour Party.

But watch the PM's actions post the speech. She immediately gave an interview to the Financial Times. OK, so it was largely aimed at building a new Special Relationship under the Trump reign. But the FT has effectively become the May house newspaper. Downing Street have plied the pink 'un with stories and briefings - nowadays known as ‘content’ - and they're not about to stop.

Why? Well, it's not because Lionel Barber, its long-standing editor is a Brexiteer or a personal fan. Far from it. It's because the FT speaks to the people Mrs May really wants to engage - the European political classes. Our Premier is going out of her way - far out of her way - to take the heat out of things. In short, one aide said to me this week, "she doesn't want a messy divorce".

The danger for Mrs May - and Britain - is that the leaders of Europe's remaining 27 countries will take umbrage at the notion that she's spoiling for some sort of Churchillian scrap. And they will take absolutist, die-in-a-ditch positions on our leaving conditions before the negotiation has even begun. Such moves could prove fatal to her chances of landing some of the wins she's after for UK firms.

There's more. The PM leapt on the phone to the most significant EU leaders within hours of delivering her Brexit speech. There she sought to deliver her message personally, rather than let the UK media's interpretation speak for her.

Mrs May worked the phones for a long time to make sure that these figures listened to her rather than read the headlines the next day. An ally tells me: "It's important that the people who run other EU countries know she doesn't want a messy divorce, or that she has any intention of breaking up Europe.

“She told them that she wants what they want. She said she believes Britain has a strong hand, but that she's coming at this in a positive way. She's genuinely trying to approach this with partnership in mind. She wants to do this in a grown-up, respectful way.”

Some influential figures in Germany pressed Chancellor Philip Hammond recently on when Britain would actually "change its mind". The Chancellor was staggered to learn that serious people over the Channel still don't believe Britain will quit.

Mrs May has also invited in the European media every week to number 10.Her press secretary Katie Perrior addressed 76 foreign hacks last week. They have decided to "take back control" of the message by delivering it to the horse's mouth directly - not through the filter of the Brexit-supporting, May-adoring UK Press.

 

 

Picture by: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/Press Association Images

 

About the author

George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor of The Sun.

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