2 Feb 2018

Theresa May dodges questions while tensions grow over Brexit phase two

Theresa May hopes she’s neutralised the row over Steve Baker’s attacks on the civil service. But that’s a proxy battle for the bigger row over direction of government policy on Brexit phase two.

Which way is Theresa May going on that?

This morning there were reports swirling that the government was seriously considering staying in something that looks and sounds like the Customs Union. That’s the kind of stuff that is panicking the European Research Group (Steve Baker’s Commons pressure group now run by Jacob Rees-Mogg).

So where is government policy going?

Mrs May doesn’t give many interviews and you have to cross the world to get them. This morning in Shanghai she faced the cameras.

Mrs May is apt to ignore the question. Many politicians do, of course.

But there’s an art to this called “pivoting.” You deftly turn the question to your purpose. Today Mrs May did not pivot, she didn’t come within a 200 mile fishing limit of the questions. There was a water cannon of words fired back at reporters, phrases about getting the best deal, working for trade in China.

We have been told that Theresa May is trying to get agreement to what Brexit supporting critics will see as pretty much a standstill new relationship to follow a standstill transition. As David Davis told the Brexit select Committee 10 days ago, under the current proposals “how far we diverge will be a matter for future governments.”

We’ve just been visiting a land where they plan policy in decades, sometimes centuries. Some Brexiteers believe the “stay aligned for now” approach to the U.K./EU relationship would waste the Brexit opportunity.

So I asked Mrs May if she was in danger of splitting the difference, merely keeping warring factions in the Tory Party apart rather than planning, as her hosts do, decades in advance?

Back came the verbal water cannon. Working for trade, getting the best deal.

Did she disparage what Steve Baker did?

We are working for trade, trying to get the best deal.

I could go on.

Mrs May’s supporters would argue that now more than ever she is engaged in a delicate operation to create a viable Brexit strategy as head of a warring party. Loose words never cost more.

Are these trade missions actually useful?

Some in the delegation said their deals were already happening and “the government just corralled them all together.” Another said: “it’s just something you have to do.”

But one business figure I bumped into in Beijing told me some deals suddenly come to fruition at times like this when you might have thought they were many months off from completion. “What happens is a boss hears that there’s going to be a signing ceremony for lots of deals with a (Chinese government) Minister present. The Minister being there gives them cover. If anything goes wrong with the contract they can say it had Ministerial sign off – their back is covered.”

Building some kind of relationship with someone as powerful as President Xi could bring dividends. The U.K. delegation was struck by the speed of his thought and delivery and the range of topics he had an easy mastery of.

There was no slap down for Mrs May from The Global Times or other sources even though she talked about human rights, Hong Kong and steel dumping. One seasoned summit watcher says the Chinese leadership has got much better at coping with these moments over the years. No doubt their visitors have got better and better at toning down that section of the discussions too.

My favourite headline of the trip is in today’s China Daily: “Innovative Farming Exhibits Catch May’s Eye.”

What she’d give for coverage like that back home.


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