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”.
Triggering Article 50 will bring a wave of bad news for Government, punctuated by rare moments of success. As negotiations with the EU and others continue and conclude, these moments should become more frequent, showing the public they were right to vote leave. But it’s hard to conclude anything other than this: the Government is in for a battering.
The scale of the challenges are such that there are potentially hundreds of negative stories that will emerge – even more if the media and the SNP recruit translators to pore through stories and research reports on relevant foreign media and Government sites.
Some stories are inevitable and are effectively “priced-in” to political analysis. For example, we’re all expecting financial services firms to shift certain functions to the EU, a major car manufacturer to expand production elsewhere, and a tech company to shift its HQ to Berlin. We’re also expecting concerns to be raised about the Government’s capacity and ability to conduct not only Brexit negotiations but talks with scores of prospective new partners. And we’re also expecting endless negative comment by EU officials and outside academics, questioning Britain’s economic viability.
However, many potential stories aren’t priced in because they derive from a set of circumstances entirely new to Britain. Such stories will be more powerful because there’ll be no playbook for how politicians should respond. What might these stories include? The work of the UK Trade Policy Observatory and the minutes of the Brexit Committee’s recent inquiry into UK objectives give us useful guidance.
We know a deal with the EU is going to be hard to achieve and perhaps impossible, but the reality of tariffs going up and hard borders erected will be shocking and frightening for some. Beyond this, it’s possible there will be delays in establishing our new position within the WTO – which in turn might make anything other than informal negotiations with prospective new trade partners difficult for a while. Complex issues such as “rules of origin” regulations will also throw up headaches. It’s not difficult to imagine the CBI’s demands for “action”, nor the Financial Times’s write-up.
Ironically, the Government’s greatest hope – a fast deal with the US – will also lead to difficult headlines. While our close relationship gets us to the negotiating table quickly, the US delegation will be brutal in the room. Regardless of Trump’s own views, they’ll be under extreme pressure from their own legislators and powerful lobby groups to get the best deal. Some have speculated that the US will give Britain a take it or leave it deal. They would be unlikely to be so outwardly confrontational, but this might be the reality. After all, they’ll know that a major early failure for Britain will be devastating.
To set out the extremely difficult political and media landscape is not to question the wisdom of the decision of the British people. On the contrary, Britain should be more prosperous and safer outside the EU. But everyone needs to be prepared for the hugely difficult times that we now face. While it’s reasonable for eurosceptics to set out their vision for the future and to encourage the Prime Minister to be bold and tough, they’re going to have to cut her a massive amount of slack in securing progress.