The Politics of Communication: ‘Sovereignty’ versus ‘Trade’

Political commentators say that luck is an essential part of any political career. But others will reply we make our luck. Indeed, Theresa May must be relieved that the Brexit debate is off the front headlines, and she has an opportunity to communicate a far different image of her leadership than the one the public have become use to. The Skripal affair in Salisbury last week and now the Syrian bombings have given Theresa May an opportunity to communicate an image of a strong conviction leader who is both anti Russian and a reliable supporter of her ally, President Donald Trump.  Even when the backlash comes over May not consulting Parliament on the bombing, the Brexit issue will still be off the media radar.

In her televised speech, Theresa May’s speech writers have shown an excellent command of rhetoric. Her delivery was in the plain form; slow, emphatic and to the point. The sentences were short, “We believe it was both right and legal to take military action”. The speech employed an excellent use of rhetorical devices such as the repetition of words and phrases; “It was not about intervening in a civil war, it was not about regime change, it is about…”, and “It was a limited, targeted and effective strike”. Her voice broke at the right moments with the usual emotions. As a result of the Skripal affair and the strikes on Syria, Mrs May’s clever advisors have projected her onto the world stage as a ‘conviction’ leader practically overnight. However, will this image of Mrs May endure the backlash and the coming months of hard Brexit negotiations?

There is a certain silence in the media this week about the current state of the Brexit negotiations. The UK wants, according to David Davis, the UK Brexit Secretary, to send up to 50 negotiation teams to Brussels to begin negotiation on the details of any future deal. A clever move, we could say, that would place the emphasis on the details of the agreement rather than on the big items. It would remove negotiations from the top level to a more technical level. The EU has rejected this idea, and negotiations will remain at top level. For example, there are the thorny questions of Gibraltar and the Irish border. Should London give Spain a greater say in the running of Gibraltar for greater trade concessions from the EU? Or should the sovereignty issue of Gibraltar be left outside the negotiations and the concentration be on trade opportunities?  Will these questions of Gibraltar and Ireland eventually reduce the negotiations to the ‘sovereignty’ versus ‘trade’ dilemma? And which way will the May government jump, if it does?

On the surface, the British economy is doing well inside the EU with an annual growth rate of 1.8%, and sterling remains basically unchanged since the Brexit vote. The FTSE is now 16% higher than it was two years ago, and employment numbers are up too; the UK economy appears to be in good health. Many argue that as the global and EU economies are doing very well, this has helped growth in the UK. But there are clouds on the horizons. Just this week, the car industry is having jitters, for example. At least a thousand jobs are to be lost at the Jaguar plant in Solihull, and we have to ask, are there more surprises to come?

As the Skripal affair and Syria bombing have dominated the front pages of the media, Mrs May and her pro-Brexit cabinet have escaped, for now, the scrutiny of the Fourth Estate, but how long can this last, before Brexit and Theresa May (without the aid of her excellent speech writers) are once again on the media hit list. Will it all end up in the ‘sovereignty’ versus ‘trade’ dilemma for Mrs May and her pro Brexit colleagues?