Diary

This is what happens when you put Brexit in the hands of unbelievers

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

Well, we did it. No, not Brexit, the World Cup or my (somewhat less) ambitious scheme at Legal & General to interest the nation in investing. Not yet at least. But we did reach the end of term — and the end of the school year. With three out of our nine children leaving their respective schools, my husband, Richard, and I have been staggering towards the finish line, with the usual sports days and summer concerts interspersed with leavers’ picnics, drinks, dinners and cricket days, all of course held in uncharacteristically glorious sunshine. On occasion we had to draft in the cavalry: one daughter took my place at the mothers-and-sons tennis tournament (a welcome substitute for the son in question, since she can actually play). Older siblings have generally stepped up when we ‘ran out of parents’. Now to the matter of packing for the summer holidays.

Despite the ominous news from Chequers, the feel-good factor continued into Saturday, thanks to England’s resounding performance in the World Cup quarter-finals. Whatever happens next, Gareth Southgate’s rallying cry to ‘own the process’ has to be the leadership mantra of the decade. He has a clear and bold plan, the ability to set the agenda, to keep his team calm, to silence the critics, recover from setbacks and to carry the nation forward, united. Those of us old enough to have witnessed Southgate’s missed penalty at England’s Euro ’96 semi-final against Germany are particularly impressed. In today’s transparent — and judgmental — world, effective leaders in sport, business and politics are those who can inspire rather than merely try to tell people what to do.


And so on to the main event. Last week’s fabulous Spectator party was, with hindsight, a prelude to the current political dramas. Many of the protagonists on both sides of Brexit were in attendance and perhaps could have settled things there and then. Instead, they stood in separate corners, each surrounded by their allies. The indefatigable Julia Hartley-Brewer was a notable exception, moving back and forth between the groups. Meanwhile, day to day, whatever ‘business leaders’ and their lobbyists say, most of us are just getting on with things. Brexit is but one of many challenges and opportunities and the problem is the mismatch between those who voted leave and won, and those who lost but still control how we leave, while mostly thinking Brexit is a terrible idea.

In reality, Britain is hugely dynamic and home to world-leading companies across many sectors, including those, such as FinTech, that can drive future economic growth. We massively underplay the UK’s strengths. We offer world-class financial services and creative industries, the best legal system for deals and leading-edge green finance. We’re at the forefront of equal opportunities and corporate governance. It’s a misunderstanding to think we rely on the EU in these areas. We are often the pioneers.

Just as the Chequers fall-out began, I had breakfast with a young American woman whose mother, Ann Ross, had dialled in to the Brian Lehrer New York radio show when I was on it a couple of weeks ago. Ann told me that her 19-year-old daughter Jillian was interning at a London-based asset management boutique. I was keen to meet her and am glad I did. Her ‘major’ at Columbia is brilliant: computer science and philosophy. And her tale of going for student president at her co-ed high school was also impressive. She made her first attempt aged 14, and had to make an election speech for the class president vote. The other candidates were all boys, and they spoke before her. Their speeches were lighthearted and jokey, and by the time her turn came she had decided that her serious, prepared speech was a mistake. She made an impromptu attempt at what seemed the route to success, but her jokes bombed and she didn’t get elected. The following year she stuck to what she was really all about, and so began her journey to becoming overall student president in her final year.

I hope Jillian continues to march to her own tune. I’ll be meeting another president who does that, Donald Trump, at a dinner this week hosted by the PM. I’m glad to be invited: it’s an opportunity to see how he operates, unfiltered, with no fake news. And the US is clearly a priority trading partner and our major political ally. If we are really to ‘own the process’, we need to engage and influence rather than boycott and protest. One man or woman can make a difference; whatever your views on his policies, Trump understands this. We Brits need to shake off our insecurities, rediscover boldness and embrace the opportunities unfolding across the globe. It’s coming home!

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