After all the talk over the past week that Britain has a great opportunity to get close to, and do deals with, a man who stands against free trade and for building walls, Theresa May’s speech tonight at the Lord Mayor’s banquet is to be applauded.
It is always useful in politics to define your enemies carefully and clearly. The public – and your own Cabinet – can learn as much from a clear definition of what you are against as from any efforts to outline a positive narrative.
The implication of wishing to be “the strongest global advocate for free markets”, as briefings indicated she would say this evening, is that Mrs May’s biggest enemies are now Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. Plus, of course, their close friend Nigel Farage.
It should be noted that on Saturday Marion Marechal-Le Pen, niece of the leader of France’s far-right Front National party, accepted an invitation to “work closely together” with Stephen Bannon, the chairman of Breitbart News who headed Trump’s campaign and has now been appointed the president-elect’s chief strategist.
Her aunt Marine Le Pen, on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, spoke of her admiration for Vladimir Putin’s model of “reasoned protectionism”.
This is no time for illusions or wishful thinking. The battle for an open world is well and truly under way. Britain needs to make sure the battle is won.
In the minds of commentators as well as the general public, Brexit, Trump and the chances of Le Pen in France’s presidential election next May are all moves in the same direction: towards closure and isolationism. So Britain’s prime minister needs urgently and forcefully to show that this is wrong.
Defining President-elect Trump not as “someone we can do business with”, as her foreign secretary has said, but rather as someone we desperately need to persuade to change his mind and his policy ideas is a good start.
Next, Mrs May needs to do what she has so far been resisting, with all her might: show her true intentions with Brexit, or at least an outline plan of how to achieve them.
She has wanted to play for time and to get a grip over her own party and Cabinet. But by delaying she risks allowing Cabinet divisions to overwhelm her.
If she truly wants to be the world’s greatest advocate of free markets, she needs to show how. Whatever she thinks of Brexit, she must by now understand that in the first instance Brexit will unavoidably represent a stride backwards from free markets and free trade, since leaving the customs union and the single market will necessitate the erection of new barriers to trade with Britain’s biggest export and import market.
So the country, companies investing in Britain, and indeed the world, need to know what is to be put in its place. She says Britain will be open and will be a great force for free markets. So let us know how – before it is too late.
This article by Bill Emmott was also published by InFacts on 14 November 2016
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