George Pascoe-Watson: Theresa May is all about trade

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 10 November 2016 in Opinion

The Prime Minister's response to Donald Trump's election win was the right one


As Theresa May and Donald Trump hang up their phones after their first conversation, compare these responses from yesterday to the election of America’s 45th President.

"I look forward to working with president-elect Donald Trump, building on these ties to ensure the security and prosperity of our nations in the years ahead."

“Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom, and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”

Theresa May gets it.

Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande were quick to win pundits’ praise for their barbed congratulations messages to president-elect Donald Trump.

Premier Mrs May, on the other hand, found herself mocked and criticised at home for a surprisingly positive and welcoming statement.

Already, Number 10, ambassadors, embassies and Foreign Office officials are fixing diaries in the hope of Mrs May being one of the first through the White House door next January. Trump apparently ending his call this afternoon with an invite. Could the PM really be imagining recreating the political romance of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan?

Why does Mrs May “get it”?

Because she alone realises that whoever sits in the Oval Office is crucial to Britain’s future as a trading nation.

Especially as a trading nation with a burning platform of EU membership which offers a unique opportunity to become even richer and more successful.

The special relationship, on ice since the election of Barack Obama, could come out of the deep freeze if Mrs May’s calculations are right.

It’s crucial for security, and lord knows work must be done to ensure president-elect Trump honours the commitments of NATO membership.

But the UK’s position as a global trading player is in large part dependent on our unique ties with America.

People in Mrs May’s team say she knew full well how to respond to the election of Trump: Britain’s PM is not in a position to be sniffy.

She chose to give him an unqualified welcome because she must work with him for the good of Britain.

It won’t be easy.

The president-elect holds grudges.

He will know that only a year ago Mrs May told a select committee that he was spouting “nonsense” about life in the UK. Indeed, our own foreign secretary Boris Johnson joked the only reason he didn’t want to venture to certain parts of New York was to avoid bumping into “The Donald”.

But the Premier is on a single-minded mission to make America and its new president our friend. Because trade matters.

Look at her successful trip to India this week. It only lasted two full days but netted around £1billion in trade deals. One small business leader on the PM’s plane signed a £4 million deal during the trip with a £1 million profit margin. He told Mrs May he could not have done it without her decision to go searching for work.

David Cameron was perhaps Britain’s best overseas salesman for a number of industries. But our new PM has decided she can top his numbers and has pencilled in a bewildering diary of foreign trade missions in the coming six months. She’s already visited more EU countries than her predecessor did in his first year.

One well-placed adviser to the PM says this: “If we want to make the most out of Brexit, we need to be an outward-looking nation.That means an outward-looking Prime Minister looking for the best deal for Britain wherever and whenever she can.

“She is going to be out there abroad, drumming up trade and making sure everyone knows we are an optimistic, positive and forward-looking nation.”

One crucial reason she wants to travel is because of the bitter tensions that Brexit are already throwing up. Not because she wants to run away from the domestic difficulties. Far from it.

Mrs May is keenly aware that EU leaders like Merkel and Hollande could get the wrong end of the stick if they read the media’s interpretation of Westminster politics. So she’s decided not to rely on the diplomatic service, the media or any other outlet. She’s decided to tell leaders herself what’s going on.

This means jumping on many more planes to brief leaders personally. And it means keeping the hotline to EU chancelleries open.

An official told me: “She doesn’t want leaders to have a filtered view of our Brexit position. She wants to tell them herself. Then they can be in no doubt. Don’t take anyone else’s word for it, take mine, is her view.”

Those tensions at home are hard to manage.

Talk of strain between her and her Chancellor Philip Hammond is something which must be managed. Friends point out the two are genuine friends who go back many years to their days as Conservative councillors. Mr Hammond and his wife are also members of the exclusive circle of people Mrs May and her husband Philip would choose as private dining companions.

The Downing Street team are quick to remind people that a new way of doing politics means Cabinet ministers will be allowed to express differences of opinion. Mrs May well remembers the “orchestrated and scripted” control exerted by Mr Cameron where Cabinet ministers were told what to say and to whom after weekly meetings.

This way of operating means differences of opinion will be reported and classed as tensions and fall-outs.

“It’s a price worth paying for a more effective way of doing government business”, say Mrs May’s inner circle.

About the author

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

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