Prime minister’s lack of domestic authority hinders appeal to global business leaders
An hour before Theresa May took to the stage in Davos, Philip Hammond stood up to speak to the British business leaders lunch, an annual fixture at the World Economic Forum.
“It was a walk in the mountain air that inspired the prime minister to call a general election, so I am discouraging her from taking any strolls,” the chancellor quipped.
The crack duly got the laugh it was expecting, but exposed a brutal truth: a year on from her Davos debut as prime minister, May is a much diminished figure in the eyes of the people who run the UK’s biggest companies.
Downing Street considered May’s 24 hours in Davos a success: she delivered a serious speech; she spent the morning in private conversations about the importance of new technology; she was the first leader to hold a bilateral with Donald Trump; and there were no embarrassing moments.
But something was not quite right. The sort of world leaders that go down well in Davos either display strength, vision or charm; and those that go down a storm radiate all three.
May’s authority has been sapped by the loss of the government’s overall majority at last June’s election. She has never been able to make her idea of “a country that works for everyone” sing. And while she tried hard, she did not feel at ease in Davos and it showed.
The story told by her former press adviser Katie Perrior about how she preferred to sit in her hotel room and eat fondue rather than take up the offer of a meeting with Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire who founded the Alibaba conglomerate, spoke volumes.
As if told by her advisers that she needed to make more of an effort this year, the prime minister showed up at the reception held by Aberdeen Asset Management on Wednesday night, which with its malt whiskies and apiper playing Scotland the Brave outside was a nice, safe option. On one of Cameron’s visits to Davos, he bunked off with George Osborne and Boris Johnson for a pizza.
Twelve months ago, May was a big draw in Davos. It was seven months after the Brexit vote and the UK had yet to trigger article 50. For the attendees at Davos, May was an unknown quantity and there was genuine interest in who she was, what she stood for and how she intended to proceed with Britain’s EU divorce.
A year on, the hall was only two-thirds full to hear May speak, and her 30-minute address was considered worthy but dull. Most leaders prefer to sit on stage in an armchair while Klaus Schwab, the founder of Davos, butters them up. May opted for the formal approach, waiting off stage until Schwab had finished his spiel.
Inevitably, unflattering comparisons were made with Emmanuel Macron who had played to a packed house the night before. Macron’s message to Davos was simple: France is back. Those who turned up to listen to May talk about artificial intelligence were left scratching their heads at the absence of a big-picture vision.
“To be honest with you, I was a bit disappointed,” said one Swiss businesswoman. “She talked about AI, which is important and interesting, but I wanted to hear something about Britain’s future relationship with the EU. There was a very large elephant in the room.”
The Hammond lunch took place at the Belvedere hotel, the social hub of Davos. May appeared at the drinks’ reception beforehand to press the flesh for 15 minutes. It was something that would have come as second nature to her predecessor but it was hard work for May and something she did not relish.
“She is not a natural leader,” said one industry figure. “She is like a chief executive who doesn’t command his board. She is weak and can’t control the cabinet.”
Another chief executive, extremely unhappy about the idea of a hard Brexit, said the prime minister should take a tougher line with her foreign secretary. “She needs to start leading from the front, to do what’s best for the country and not care what Boris says or does.”
A straw poll of executives at the lunch suggested that executives, many of whom donate money to the Conservative party, have some sympathy for the prime minister. “She is clearly a decent person but she is painfully shy,” one City figure said. “I feel sorry for her.”
For May, the good news is that business doesn’t hate her. The bad news is that they pity her.
For a prime minister, that’s worse.