James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Despite the overwhelmingly and justified positive media reaction to Theresa May’s speech, in reality she had little choice but to give it. She’d have faced a serious political crisis with weak comments.
Prevarication on immigration would have seen her public ratings plummet. Hinting Britain might stay in the Single Market would have led to criticism from leave campaign veterans. Insufficient enthusiasm for international free trade would have seen the business community up in arms.
With that in mind, it’s fair to ask who it is we saw on Tuesday: Theresa May, the brilliant politician who knows exactly how to protect her position; or Theresa May, the Prime Minister with a vision for a global future for Britain?
It’s too early to say. And it’s possible that might not be clear for some time, given that May has ruled out further speeches in the name of protecting Britain’s negotiating position.
At one level, who we saw on Tuesday is irrelevant. Theresa May gave a clear, tough and constructive speech. It was an unambiguous reset of our relationship with the EU. But, while her speech appears to have convinced many that she will deliver the global pivot that we need, it was only one speech.
It was also a speech very much of its time – of January 2016, on the eve of negotiations – rather than a heavily principled, timeless speech.
May and her team should review what looks to be a settled policy of relative quiet on Europe. Britain’s negotiating position and indeed her own political position will surely be strengthened, not weakened, if we have a greater sense of how Europe fits into Britain’s new global role.
After all, there will be some early and high-profile setbacks as senior European politicians and officials raise the prospect of playing hardball with Britain.
Emphasising the point that Britain is set upon an entirely new role – with new trading and security alliances with fast-growing economies in the rest of the world – will put the turbulence of our exit negotiations in their proper context. In the nicest possible way, she should explain Europe is important to Britain, but will become less so over time.
There are many options for what that vision for Britain should be. As I have written here before, personally I would like to see Britain encourage the creation of a new Global Free Trade Alliance, as articulated by the geopolitical consultant John Hulsman.
Politically speaking, that’s a huge task and not one that can be pulled out of thin air by a British Prime Minister; it will require years of planning. But it is possible to begin to articulate some of the themes that would take us in that direction.
May’s refusal to fill column inches and her stated desire to focus on the job in hand are admirable. But as this speech has shown, people listen to important speeches; they can have a huge impact. She should be prepared to communicate regularly in the coming year when she has something important to say. It will help not hinder her work.