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01 February, 2018
‘Auntie May’ lost in China
Photo: British Prime Minister Theresa May inspects a ceremonial guard with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the Great Hall of the People on January 31, 2018 in Beijing | Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images
The prime minister is unconvincing as Britain’s evangelist
Even 7,000 miles from home, she still doesn’t know where she’s going.
Theresa May arrived in China on Wednesday with a mission to sell “Global Britain,” that buccaneering, Brexit Britain set out by Leaver-in-chief Boris Johnson that has become the government’s central economic strategy as it looks beyond the EU for future growth.
But does the prime minister believe it? Halfway through her first official trip to the global superpower, there remains much skepticism, despite May’s avowed commitment to the cause.
“I am doing what I believe to be important for the sake of the country, which is actually being out here and doing this work in terms of [a] trade deal and at the same time obviously as we’re doing all the other things necessary for the future of the country,” she told reporters traveling with her.
What really drives her, though, is domestic and throughout her trip she has been at pains to stress her government is not only concerned with Brexit.
After Brexit, May declared, the U.K. will be able to be “more outward looking” than it was before.
The vicar’s daughter, who once dismissed “citizens of the world” as “citizens of nowhere” and who arrived in Downing Street promising to make Britain work “not for a privileged few, but for every one of us,” is visibly uncomfortable on the world stage, flying the flag for Britain as she sees through a referendum result she didn’t support in the first place.
The grand banquets and ceremonies of the global diplomatic circuit are not her style — she prefers the backroom tête-à-têtes, where the nitty gritty work of government is done. While French President Emmanuel Macron makes sure he is followed everywhere by an aide filming his every move for Twitter, May takes off with her security advisers to prep for her meetings. Apart from her bilateral with President Xi, May’s diary in Beijing on Thursday is — remarkably — all-but clear. An “R&D visit” at 11 a.m. and a “tourism, arts and culture reception” at 12:15 p.m. are her only scheduled appointments.
If the prime minister is not the biggest evangelist for the government’s central economic strategy as it prepares to leave the European Union, MPs, officials and even former aides ask in private, then what is she doing in the job?
It is this gnawing doubt that lies at the heart of May’s mounting problems at home, where Euroskeptic and pro-EU MPs alike are increasingly disillusioned with her leadership. It is also a doubt that could topple her.
This growing concern appears to have hit home in No. 10 Downing Street. As the noise grows louder in Westminster, the message from May has sharpened, but time is running out.
Her Brexit war Cabinet is now due to meet twice next week in the face of increasing pressure to make decisions about what kind of relationship Britain wants with the EU in future.
What ‘Global Britain?’
At the bar of the RAF Voyager somewhere over Siberia on Tuesday, two hours into the prime minister’s flight to Wuhan — the first stop on her three-city visit China— May delivered a message tailored not for her waiting Chinese hosts but for the Tory colleagues she had left behind in Westminster.
Surrounded by journalists and Downing Street staff, the prime minister was asked “hand on heart” whether she believed in Brexit. Her reply — “yes” — was her most unequivocal to date, 18 months after Brits voted to leave the EU.
“I believe that outside the EU we can not only project that Global Britain but I believe we can see a better future for our economy,” she said.
May doubled down on the rhetoric in a press conference with her counterpart, Premier Li Keqiang, in frosty Beijing on Wednesday afternoon.
In the grand surroundings of the Great Hall of the People, surrounded by giant portraits of ancient China, May declared, the U.K. after Brexit will be able to be “more outward looking” than it was before, a “global Britain” able to strike out on its own in the world.
Premier Li did not seek to disavow May on this point, indeed, he was at pains to stress that Brexit would not interfere with China’s relationship with the U.K. China’s morning newspapers on Thursday were also full of praise for the U.K. prime minister — a stark reversal since the scathing reaction to David Cameron’s reception of the Dalai Lama in the U.K.
May has even won an affectionate moniker in China, the country’s state broadcaster informed her in an interview Thursday. Appearing on China Central TV, May was asked if she knows she has a nickname. “No, I didn’t,” she replied, apparently taken aback. “A lot of Chinese people would affectionately call you, in Chinese, ‘Auntie May’ … you’re one of the members of the family. Do you like that?”
Evidently not used to such a question, particularly in the current climate at home, the prime minister replied: “Oh, thank you. Thank you very much indeed. I’m honored by that. Thank you.”
Yet question marks remain.
Throughout the trip little of major substance has been achieved. A number of low-key announcements have been dripped out for the traveling press pack: a deal to open a chain of new nurseries in China; an agreement to tackle international wildlife trade; measures to open up the Chinese market to British beef.
The prime minister told Chinese media that “a significant number of major commercial deals” would also be agreed during the trip, worth over £9 billion.
All laudable, of course. But when matched to the economic challenge of navigating Brexit and reasserting Britain’s place in the world, they fall painfully short.
On trade, progress was made with a new U.K.-China “trade and investment review” which No. 10 said was a “first step” on the road to a much deeper economic partnership.
Yet, there is no escaping the sense that momentum has ebbed from President Xi’s 2015 state visit, signaling a supposed new “golden era” in Sino-British relations.
From crisis to crisis
Critics wonder whether May would even be in China had she won last year’s general election.
Her original strategy, under the guidance of her former chief of staff Nick Timothy, was to refocus the government on the home front, with a working-class conservatism that sought to tackle the injustices of an untamed free market leaving ordinary people behind.
Photo: Chinese opera performers entertain British Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip May on January 31, 2018 in Wuhan, China | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
“Global Britain” had polled very badly with supporters of the Leave campaign during the referendum, according to aides involved in the campaign. It was a relentless focus on extra money for the NHS and immigration which won it for the Brexiteers. Studies have shown a large number of the 17 million voters who backed Brexit say they did so because of immigration.
While close allies of the prime minister insist there is no contradiction between “economic justice at home and free trade abroad,” it is far from clear how May’s 2017 vision to tackle the causes of the Brexit vote match her 2018 reversion to Britain’s pre-referendum policy of cozying up to China.
The prime minister’s new-found focus on environmentalism was even dismissed by Timothy, her most influential former aide, as strategically confused.
Her critics say the global, green rhetoric is little more than a copy of David Cameron’s strategy to detoxify the Conservative Party, aimed at the middle classes, rather than the working-class Brexiteers May originally set her sights on. She hobbles on, one careful step at a time, because she feels it is her duty, but shorn of the vision to guide her out of the crisis.
The Spectator magazine — known as “the Conservative Party’s in-house bible” — launched a scathing attack on her premiership on its front cover while she wined and dined in Beijing. “Lead or go,” the headline screamed.
As the U.K. starts to negotiate a transition deal with Brussels, pressure grows on the prime minister to make decisions about what kind of eventual relationship Britain wants to have with the European Union. May told journalists traveling to China that her Cabinet was building the future partnership one block at a time. She may not have the time for such a slow process.
A speech penciled in for February, according to reports, but rubbed out of the diary for now could hand May the chance to reclaim the initiative.
Photo: British Prime Minister Theresa May looks on during a welcome ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on January 31, 2018 in Beijing | Dan Lintao Zhang/Getting Images
“I said just over a year ago now that as and when I could clarify aspects of our negotiations I would do so,” she told reporters accompanying her on the trip.
“I did that in Lancaster House, I did the Florence speech, as I’ve just said there’s another area where I will be doing that next month in Munich on our security relationship for the future. As and when we have more to say and to clarify, then I will do so.”
It’s hard to escape the conclusion it’s all a bit forced, a project to be managed, not an opportunity seized.
Many of the most senior civil servants in Whitehall share that view, and have admitted as much in private. But for May, this is not an option, given the strength of feeling among Conservative MPs.
May is doing her duty, but her party wants someone to do more than that.