May pitches Brexit UK as global cheerleader for free trade

By Robert Hutton, Tim Ross

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks on the third day of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Photo / AP
British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks on the third day of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Photo / AP

Theresa May pitched post-Brexit Britain as a champion of globalisation and free trade Thursday in Davos, Switzerland, saying she wants to defend the "rules-based international system."

"The U.K. will step up to a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world," the prime minister said in a speech to the World Economic Forum.

May's address to the high temple of the global elite was an attempt to reassure her audience that, despite having taken office on the back of the wave of populism that swept Britain and America in 2016, she is a voice of "centre-ground, mainstream politics" and someone they can work with. It was met with muted applause.

She was speaking in a week dominated by the fall-out of last year's electoral upsets. On Monday, Europe awoke to newspaper interviews with President-elect Donald Trump in which he cast doubt on the European Union, NATO and free trade, while on Tuesday May set out her strategy for leaving the 28-nation bloc.

Trump will be inaugurated as president on Friday.

In her speech, the prime minister sought to suggest that she will be a force for stability, supporting global bodies that Trump has attacked.

"I believe strongly in a rules based global order," she said. "The establishment of the institutions that give effect to it in the mid 20th century was a crucial foundation for much of the growing peace and prosperity the world has enjoyed since. And the tragic history of the first half of the last century reminds us of the cost of those institutions' absence."

Her tone was strikingly different from the speech she made to her Conservative Party conference in October, when she attacked those who see themselves as "citizens of the world." She praised Britain's racial diversity, and insisted the country is outward-facing.

Where she did echo that speech was in her warning to audience members that they can't continue business strategies of exploiting workers and avoiding taxes. Voters are angry about a system where "those who prosper play by a different set of rules, while for many life remains a struggle," she said, calling for "responsive, responsible leadership."

"We have to step up and take control to ensure that free trade and globalization work for everyone," she said. "For business, it means doing even more to spread those benefits to more people. It means playing by the same rules as everyone else when it comes to tax and behavior."

In the audience in Davos was Howard M. Meyers, Chairman of Quexco Incorporated, the Dallas, Texas-based recycled metals company. He said he was impressed with May's focus on global trade. "As a U.S. businessman with a British interest, I thought she did a very good job," Myers said.

Others were less enthusiastic. "In the Twitter world, you need a speech-writer who knows how to write in memorable tweets," said Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. "This year people are quoting at least 20 of Xi Jinping's tweets. That tells me he has a brilliant speech-writer. If I were Mrs. May's chief of staff I would want to hire that speech-writer."

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