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'Working with friends new and old' - Theresa May tries to sell Brexit deal to G20

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Theresa May gives a press conference on board her plane
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British Prime Minister Theresa May left a cold wet London yesterday after a 90-minute grilling by senior MPs for sunnier climes. No, she’s not getting a deserved holiday, she’s off on a long weekend to Argentina for the annual G20 meeting in Buenos Aires.

The debate

As we prepared for take-off on her RAF Voyager plane a row has broken out between her team and the BBC versus Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and ITV over the TV debate. May’s Director of Communications Robbie Gibb, a former BBC News executive, has decided on his former employer to play host but Corbyn’s team want commercial broadcaster ITV.

Corbyn even happened to be on ITV’s magazine This Morning program at the time give a live reaction to news from Downing Street that the event would take place on the BBC. Either network will have to do significant rearranging to their prime-time scheduling but in a sign of the confusion even the BBC’s press office seemed caught off guard:

But leaving worries of an impending Commons defeat behind, the next 48 hours for a May are all about “Global Britain”. in a series of one on one meetings and at group sessions, May will be telling world leaders her Brexit agreement with the EU is “a good deal” and will have ‘positive consequences’ for the global economy.

Slip of the tongue

Onboard somewhere over the Atlantic the Prime Minister came back to the press cabin to try to convince the travelling media of her sales pitch, “One of the key things that I’ll be talking about is trade and the importance of world trade. Obviously, we’ve negotiated a good trade deal with the European Union. I think that’s also important for the rest of the world as well but I will be talking about the WTO.”

Only she hasn’t signed a trade deal with the EU. She’s negotiated a withdrawal agreement and text on the future relationship but still has to actually negotiate a deal. That battle with Brussels is still to come during the transition period - slight slip of the tongue there then.

The Prime Minister faced repeated questioning about what she will do if as predicted her deal doesn’t make it through the House of Commons, “I’m focused on what Parliament is going to be looking at, that deal in the vote on the 11th December and I’m focused on that vote and on explaining to MPs why I believe that is the good deal for the UK.

“If you look at the analysis that’s been published but the Bank of England and by Government this week what that shows is that the best deal for jobs and the economy that delivers on the vote of the referendum and also recognises opening up the opportunities of for the UK post-Brexit.

National interest

Pushed on the dire parliamentary maths though, May was stern “We haven’t had the vote yet, let’s focus, let’s focus on the deal that we have negotiated with the European Union. A deal that is good for the UK. Good for MPs’ constituents because it protects their jobs and livelihoods and protects their security going into the future.”

Asked about adopting the Norway model, something becoming more popular with MPs across parties if the PM’s deal fails, the Prime Minister again emphasised she won’t entertain any other options yet: “We’ve been clear from the beginning, the EU says there was nothing else available, but what you see in the political declaration is what would be a deal for the United Kingdom, that is not Norway, it is not Canada, a more ambitious free trade agreement than Canada, that ends free movement which Norway doesn’t do. So this is the deal that is right for the UK.”

She also attacked Labour's position: “Without a backstop, there is no deal. I think we’ve seen revealed in many of the Labour party’s comments is what they actually want to see is another general election. And that means they are not acting in the national interest, they are putting their narrow party interest first.”

Quizzed about a possible second referendum or People’s Vote the PM rebutted the calls, “I’m very clear that I don’t think there should be another referendum. I noted the comments that John McDonnell made yesterday, about the Labour Party seizing on the opportunity of a second referendum. Frankly, a second referendum is, I think, not the way to go. Precisely because we as a Parliament gave people in this country a decision about whether or not to leave the European Union. They voted on that, they voted to leave I think it’s a matter for the trust in politicians that we then deliver on that vote.”

On ‘No Deal’ preparations which took up most of Monday’s emergency cabinet meeting the Prime Minister was defiant, “We’re continuing our preparations to ensure that we’re doing what any sensible government will do which is making contingency arrangements for all scenarios. You know we’ve still got the vote in Parliament, I’m encouraging members of Parliament in that vote to consider what the analysis shows which is that this is the best deal for jobs and the economy, that honours the referendum and opens up the opportunities that we will have post-Brexit.”

Post-Brexit future

Commons vote aside, her civil servants have identified Latin America as a key trading market Post-Brexit. The region is the fourth largest market in the world with 638m people, a combined GDP of $5.6tn, falling poverty levels and a growing middle-class population. Net UK investment is already growing steadily, more than doubling in Brazil since 2010 from £6.4bn to £15bn.

At a session focused on trade the PM will emphasis this new openness saying the UK will be able to “play a full and active role on trade on the global stage, working with friends new and old”.

But May’s already had blowback on her deal from one old friend, the United States. Seen as the ‘golden goose’ of trade deals for post-Brexit Britain, President Trump’s comment that it “Sounds like a great deal for the EU” left Downing Street scrambling.

Trump asserted, incorrectly say May’s team, that the deal means the US will “have to take a look at seriously whether or not the UK is allowed to trade…they may not be able to trade with us and that wouldn’t be a good thing”

Adding “I don’t think the Prime Minister meant that and hopefully she’ll be able to do something about that”.

Echoing President Trump’s unhelpful comments on his summer visit when he told May to “sue the EU” and suggested three times that Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister, May’s gone from the prestige of being the first foreign leader invited to his White House to problem acquaintance.

Rumours quickly abounded that perhaps his old friend the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been briefing him again. Farage finally confirmed the story confirming to LBC he told Trump May’s deal was “shaping up to be the worst deal in history” and appearing on his favourite channel Fox News to double down on it. In Trump’s White House even the ‘Special Relationship’ is under significant strain now.

The next 48 hours will be a difficult balancing act for the Prime Minister who also issued a series of warning to other leaders. But she’s likely to receive warnings herself about the threat to the global economy should her deal fail to get through Parliament. Talk of a 2008-level shock to the financial markets has abounded and a question mark looms over what May, a proven survivor against the odds, does on December 12th to avoid a no deal Brexit.

If it looks like fellow world leaders are unconvinced by her chances then more MPs might be minded to vote against her and send in letters of no confidence, making this potentially the last time she gets to fly on the Prime Minister’s official plane representing Britain.