Inside Downing Street, there are two words that advisers would most like to define the way Theresa May leads the country out of the EU: “global Britain”. The hope is to stress a “Hello, world” vision of Brexit in which membership of the world’s largest single market is compensated with new arrangements with far-flung countries.
The dream is a raft of exciting new deals in which plucky British exporters will crack through, pouring their whisky into India’s immense market, sampling their cheese in American shops, displaying their books in New Zealand.
But as the Guardian revealed in a leaked government report, the overall challenge – to increase trade with our 10 largest non-EU partners by 37% in 13 years in order to stand still – is immense. And that is why few countries can be exempt from May’s worldwide love affair.
Still, her visit this week to Saudi Arabia will inevitably raise eyebrows, as Britain’s own senior police officers scope out the extent to which a coalition led by the Gulf country could be involved in war crimes in Yemen.
But May’s focus will be clear: not just counter-terrorism cooperation, with claims that Saudi intelligence has potentially saved hundreds of British lives, but a hope to forge a closer trading relationship. On the eve of the trip, Downing Street stressed that Saudi Arabia is Britain’s biggest economic partner in the Middle East, with exports of British goods at £4.67bn and services at £1.9bn in 2015.
But what Britain also knows is that free trade agreements (FTAs) are complex and thorny matters that can take many years to hammer out, and often fall at the final hurdle.
When May recently visited India to tout a potential post-Brexit arrangement (with the Scotch Whisky Association in tow), the response was a tricky one, underlining India’s desire to secure a rise in British visas for its students and skilled workers.
One cabinet minister sniffed at journalists’ excessive focus on FTAs, admitting that they could take 10 or 15 years to finalise. Instead, much of the emphasis will be on other ways to pull down trading barriers.
One Foreign Office document seen by the Guardian stresses the need to emphasise the links between those working in British embassies across the world and the new department for international trade. “Noting that trade is not just FTAs” is key, it adds, as senior embassy roles – including in New York – are readvertised with a trade emphasis.
The need to push this trade agenda is imperative, but the cost of a shift of focus – which actually began before the Brexit vote, under David Cameron – is stark. One document claims the result for Foreign Office workers elsewhere in the world is that “some economic security-related work like climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be scaled down”, although it will remain important in some places.
And so it is clear that – home and away – Brexit is likely to overshadow matters for many months or even years to come.