Maggie May? Michael Wilson worries that the Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit has some distinctly Thatcherist features

by | Oct 26, 2016

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Fair’s fair. It can’t be easy being Britain’s second female prime minister when the first one made such a momentous mark on history, comments Editor-in-Chief Michael Wilson. But has Theresa May been picking up on some of the less wonderful features of her eminent predecessor?

That thought has been coming back to me in the last couple of months, as Prime Minister May grapples with the dreadful burden of getting Britain out of the European Union. Yes, it’s pretty tough having to implement a 52-48 decision to Leave when you were one of the Remainers, so all credit to her for that. But what’s that funny little echo I can hear from the back of the room? Is it really saying: “There Is No Alternative”?

Why are we being denied the parliamentary scrutiny that such a momentous upheaval in our industry would normally be expected to entail? Is it really good enough to be told that Westminster will be given a late chance to review the Brexit plans once they’ve been finalised? The personal finance sector needs to know, and so do the major banks and insurance institutions on whom London’s reputation and status depend.

Not least, because the longer it takes for the details to emerge, the greater the likelihood that both banks and fund institutions will simply up sticks to Paris or Frankfurt, just in case? The City is already rife with rumours of major organisations scoping out the alternatives within the Eurozone. Scottish institutions, which are feeling particularly aggrieved about the Leave vote, are among the reputed prime movers.

Deep in the Back Rooms, Something Stirs

Aaah, say the PM’s defenders, we’ve got that one covered. In the last couple of weeks the PM has been dropping heavy hints that she’s prepared to consider a sizeable contribution to the EU’s coffers for the right to maintain the EU banking passport for British institutions, even if we do crash out of the Single Market with a so-called hard Brexit. As seems increasingly likely.

That sounds good to me, even if it appals David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. (That’s his official title, by the way.) What worries the core Brexiteers is that there is no daylight-clear channel through which the payments could be made. According to the Financial Times on 16th October, the measures being examined for “finessing” future payments might include a bigger-than-expected contribution to EU security programmes, or perhaps using the aid budget to fund European projects?

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not into FIFA-style brown-envelope territory yet, but if Mrs May is really going into this sort of backdoor cash-transfer thing then we deserve to be kept informed. Even the most government-friendly think tanks, such as the Brexit-neutral Open Europe (whose co-director is now advising Mr Davis) have warned the Premier that UK banks might start making practical moves to decamp from the UK as early as the end of 2017 unless the government can reach a deal that maintains their passporting rights. (And, as Open Europe pointedly adds, if they leave they might just as easily choose Singapore as Frankfurt, so Europe wouldn’t gain either.)

Handbags at Dawn

All very reassuring, not. But Mrs May’s insistence on keeping the Brexit discussions close to her own chest has some very Maggie-ish overtones. She might wear kitten heels where the late Mrs Thatcher sported a handbag with a reputed half-brick in it (only joking, ma’am), but the message is the same. Hands off, I’m in charge. Why does that worry me?

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