George Pascoe-Watson: Theresa May wants to show, not tell

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 24 August 2017 in Opinion

Activity is the order of the day in Number 10 as the prime minister looks to move on from the general election.


Don’t just stand there – do something. Fly the flag. This is how Theresa May has returned to 10 Downing Street after two months which rocked her Premiership to its foundations.

Mrs May is gripped by a need to show, not tell. To show she and Britain are optimistic, outward-looking and positive about the opportunity for its future.

Activity abounds. Travelling to the north east was a demonstration that she is interested in deeds, not words, that she is focused on delivering for Britain.

It is a frustrating myth that she has taken her eye off the ball on the Northern Powerhouse plan championed by her nemesis George Osborne. Indeed, backing “business Britain” will form the backbone of a new drive of energy and activity which will sit alongside her mission to get the best Brexit deal.

The PM and her newly-appointed Number 10 team know that Britain’s future fate rests on how strong we can be in a post Brexit world.

Mistakes were made during her first year when the impression was allowed to percolate around the world that corporate giants were on the naughty step. Countless British-headquartered firms and global conglomerates felt stung by implied criticism about corporate behaviour.

I am told Mrs May well understands the need to correct this false impression if UK firms are to flourish. Not only that, but she needs to lay out the red carpet to foreign-based companies if they are to consider Britain a good place to build factories and hire people.

Brexit changes everything. Without trade, and inward investment, the dream of “taking back control” will turn into a living nightmare for the UK and its people. So the energy is going back into building relations with the business world.

This is why Mrs May will soon fly a party of British business leaders to Japan. David Cameron was widely admired in the business community as being Britain’s number one salesman abroad. And there is a huge opportunity for the PM to follow suit, opening doors for UK firms to land deals abroad – as well as selling Brexit Britain as a place for companies to invest.

Japan will just be the start. China will follow.  There is difficult recent history with China which must be addressed by the PM.  It’s a reflection of how important she considers Beijing to Britain’s future – economically and geo-politically – that she’s put this trip back into the schedule.

Mrs May has already held the first of a quarterly new Business Council roundtables in Downing Street. Bosses of Jaguar Land Rover, BAe Systems and others attended. The invitees will rotate. Firms with a specific exposure to Brexit will be prioritised for now. Her husband Philip is also using his City contacts book to find very high level C-suite counsel to guide the PM.

Setting the right policy environment for Britain to be an economic and industrial powerhouse is crucial. But it’s difficult when the Treasury is effectively penniless and can’t obviously afford the incentives which normally encourage growth.

It’s also hard when Brexit currently brings uncertainty. It means home-grown firms are reluctant to invest more cash, and foreign ones stay their hand until they see how Britain will be able to trade outside the EU.

There are many details to fix below the water line. Britain’s future relationship with the European Court of Justice matters more than many people understand, in a business context. Which court will settle trade disputes in the future? Not just industry disputes, but consumer gripes about rip-offs or shoddy goods or low health or safety standards. How does a government open the door to foreign-grown food which might be cheaper, without importing lower health standards or putting Welsh hill farmers on the dole?

Some in government favour Britain signing up to the EFTA Court – which would see us continuing to observe EU business rules voluntarily without the ECJ ruling “directly” on matters in the UK. Intriguingly, EFTA’s President Carl Baudenbacher travels to London shortly to discuss his vision of how that arrangement would work.

Ministers have different visions of what post Brexit Britain should look like. Uniting the Cabinet and their supporters will be testing. At some point, a united vision must be reached and put to Parliament. It’s well worth noting, too, that the EU side has no united vision of the end state.

There are well-grounded fears that David Davis will be unable to press ahead with the meaty parts of our Brexit talks in October. This inability to come to a united Cabinet view is delaying agreement on the Ulster border, the fate of EU citizens here and the financial bill for leaving.

Until these three issues are agreed, the EU will simply not advance talks. Party conference season and German elections make it even less likely that the UK will be in a position to finalise these “red lines” by October, say some.

One thing Mr Davis is keenly watching – what terms and conditions the EU proposes for exactly when the UK can begin formal bilateral trade talks with the rest of the world. Mrs May flying the flag for Britain sends the signal that she is determined to get the best for the UK economy.




Picture credit: Jack Taylor/PA Wire/PA Images.


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