David Fuller's view -
By her standards, Theresa May was relatively restrained at the Davos summit. She loves enemies, and not in the Christian way. In front of her stood a congregation of the very people she holds up to ridicule: the plutocratic masters of the global economy, or, as she calls them, “citizens of nowhere”. On another day, she might have delivered one of the machine-gunnings that she reserves for the Police Federation or Boris Johnson. But this time she had another mission: to position Britain as the new global leader in free trade and reintroduce her country to the world.
The result was nothing short of a manifesto for a new British foreign policy and one of the best speeches given by a Prime Minister in recent years. It was a landmark not only in the evolution of her approach to Brexit, but in the development of her own political identity. It shows how far she has travelled in just a few months.
The traditional Davos speech involves clichés about the world’s ills and abstract nonsense like the “fourth industrial revolution”. The Prime Minister preferred to talk plainly. Rather than join them in lamenting populism, she sought to explain it: if people’s legitimate grievances aren’t addressed by established political parties, voters turn to insurgents. She could have added that Britain, virtually alone in Europe, has no problem with populism: the BNP dead, Ukip in crisis. And why? Because we had Brexit. It was not a Trump-style disruption; Brexit was how Britain avoids Trump-style disruption.
This is the point that European leaders find hard to understand. From Sweden to Sardinia, they are facing Eurosceptic insurgents whom they portray as barbaric and xenophobic. So they tell themselves (and their voters) that Britain has succumbed to a similar malady and is now sinking into a pit of hate crime, nativism and isolationism. This is not an anti-British agenda, necessarily, just the panic of politicians who can’t think of other ways to fend off new challengers. Mrs May came to offer some gentle advice: if you respond to people’s concerns, populism tends to go away. As Britain’s recent mini-revolution has just demonstrated.
Still, the Prime Minister has arrived rather late to all this. One of the great risks of Brexit was that the vote would be portrayed as a once-great country in meltdown, retreating from the world. Such concerns needed to be answered clearly, calmly and repeatedly. Had Boris Johnson become Tory leader he would have done this from day one. But Mrs May arrived in office implementing what seemed to be a far meaner version of Brexit than the one compellingly articulated by the Vote Leave campaign. We heard about EU nationals as bargaining chips, companies drawing up lists of foreigners, and new rules making it harder for foreigners to buy British companies.
In her speech, she quoted Edmund Burke, to the effect that if a state cannot change, it cannot survive. That good governments do not become wedded to mistakes, but scour the horizon for opportunities and adapt with the times. As she has worked out, the same is true of prime ministers.
I am relieved. OK, the Prime Minister and her Cabinet were thrown in at the deep end but they were not providing the kind of Brexit that I voted for. Fortunately this has changed dramatically in little over a week.
How did that happen? Was it a tactical decision to appear to have turned inwards, to lull the Brexit opposition and EU into a false sense of security before striding boldly and positively forward? I hope not and I don’t think so.
Was it a simultaneous eureka moment By Theresa May and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, or did they receive some very helpful advice? I suspect it is the latter although we may never know. However, I do recall mentioning shortly after Theresa May became Prime Minister that she could always get some sound advice from The Telegraph’s editorial team. While very much on her side, they had become a little more critical in the last several weeks, but no more as we see with the article above.
Whatever, Theresa May and Philip Hammond have reassured their supporters. They have also seized the initiative on Brexit and are determined to set their own agenda with a divided EU which is in disarray. Good luck to them.
Here is a PDF of Fraser Nelson’s article.
(See also: Instead of wasting time trying to replay Project Fear, banks must help us get the best deal from Brexit, by Allister Heath for The Telegraph)
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