Nick Faith is the Director of WPI Strategy which is hosting an event on 1st February, ‘How can free trade counter the rise of economic nationalism?’
Theresa May is not someone who is easily intimidated. As one of Britain’s longest serving Home Secretaries, she did not take a back foot when taking on the playground bullies.
Her speech at the Police Federation conference in 2014 particularly sticks in the mind. Reading out a charge sheet of police corruption, cover-ups, and smears, she accused the trade union of bullying and delivered one of the most impressive dressing downs by any modern day politician.
When she steps into the White House on Friday as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to meet the 45th President of the United States, we can be assured that she will putting Britain’s interests first.
As she told Andrew Marr last weekend: “Whenever there is something I find unacceptable, I won’t be afraid to say that to Donald Trump.”
And you better believe it. People forget that she co-founded Women2Win over a decade ago, an influential campaign group which has championed the promotion of more women in the Conservative Party. She has also held a long standing interest in tackling modern day slavery and domestic violence.
Her focus and determination will mean that when the Prime Minister sits down with Trump for the first time, she will have the future of the UK economy in the front of her mind. And all economic roads lead back to Brexit.
Like it or loathe it, the Prime Minister has made it crystal clear that she is willing to walk away from the EU’s negotiating table if the deal is not in Britain’s best interests. Yet falling back on World Trade Organisation rules is something that has been presented as potentially having a disastrous effect on the UK economy.
The challenge for Number 10 and the government as a whole is to find a way of communicating that this may not be the case. One way of achieving this would be for the Prime Minister to announce when she triggers Article 50 in the next month or so that the UK will also be pursuing formal talks with non-EU countries, with the aim of striking at least one free trade deal before 2020.
Announcing such a move would be ballsy to say the least. The Europeans have already made threatening noises about taking the UK to court for breaching rules of the bloc that stipulate bilateral trade talks cannot take place while a member state is part of the EU. Yet such an announcement would strengthen the UK’s negotiating hand. If the Europeans know that the UK is pursuing trade talks with other countries around the world, then it makes falling back on WTO rules less daunting.
The Government’s task is to identify which countries offer the UK the best trade prospects. Easy wins should be ignored. There should be a clear strategy, which includes a country breakdown analysing the total value of such a deal to the UK economy as well as the ease and speed of cutting such a deal. Next week, WPI Economics and Heathrow Airport will be publishing a Trade Prospects Index which will rank the countries we should prioritise.
It will come as no surprise that the United States is one of the best prospects. The President has made some encouraging noises but his brand of economic nationalism will sit uncomfortably with the Prime Minister. When she sits down with him this week, she must make it clear that while the UK is eager to negotiate a free trade agreement with our US cousins there are other attractive options.
It is no coincidence that the Prime Minister confirmed to the Financial Times that she was planning a trade mission to China “relatively soon”. The message this week will be clear: the UK values its special relationship with the US, but don’t expect the Theresa to be Donald’s poodle.