Britain’s Brexit vote undoubtedly plunged the country into the unknown. Yet, after three weeks of frantic politicking and with the finishing touches just having been made to a brand new government, perhaps the greater unknowns are the people leading it into its non-E.U. future.
From new prime minister Theresa May down, European politicians and observers have been reaching for their “Who’s Who” guides to read up on the key figures in her foreign policy team. They haven’t found out much.
There is of course one exception: new foreign secretary Boris Johnson. The former London mayor and face of the Leave campaign has spent years cultivating his image, from playing ping pong with the Chinese to insulting President Barack Obama for his Kenyan-inspired “ancestral dislike” of the British. The result is an instantly recognizable mop-headed figure both widely ridiculed as a clown and highly respected for his charm, intellect and popular appeal.
But his four new top-level, foreign-facing cabinet colleagues have attracted much less attention. There could be a simple reason for this – their past links with the press.
The three previous prime ministers, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, were all notorious for their on-message, well-spun and meticulously media-managed governments. All ran slick press operations and made a point of cultivating close links with press barons such as Rupert Murdoch. The result was a political public relations revelation, with each premier and their key underlings – for example former finance minister George Osborne – becoming well-known figures on the global stage.
The lightning rise and appointment of Ms. May, chancellor Philip Hammond, Brexit secretary David Davis and international trade secretary Liam Fox caught the British and world media off guard.
“David Cameron understood symbolism and George Osborne lived through spin,” says Charlie Beckett, a former broadcast journalist and director of the international journalism think tank Polis.
But the lightning rise and appointment of Ms. May, chancellor Philip Hammond, Brexit secretary David Davis and international trade secretary Liam Fox caught the British and world media off guard. None of the appointments could have been foreseen just a month ago, and journalists were left playing catch up. In each case there was a different reason.
After six years as interior minister, Ms. May is the best known of the bunch. Her brushes with police reform and her hard line on immigration and terror suspects often put her in the media spotlight. But she by no means courted it. In fact, her modus operandi was very much to keep the press at arm’s length.
Between her taking on the portfolio in May 2010 and December 2015, she had just 67 official appointments with media representatives, according to government records. That compares with 280 by Mr. Osborne and 222 by Mr. Cameron.
Ms. May’s campaign team was quick to put this down to her head-down, no-nonsense style of working. And she has made a selling point of it. “I don’t tour the television studios, I don’t gossip about people over lunch, I don’t go drinking in parliament’s bars,” she said in her leadership bid launch speech. The clear message was that she had been too busy sorting out the country’s problems to have time for frivolous schmoozing.
It’s a well exploited ploy, according to Aeron Davis, professor of political communication at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Staid and boring is more believable, more credible in a time of turmoil,” he said.
Mr. Hammond’s relationship with the media has also been fleeting. His new boss is thought to have given him the finance brief because, like her, he is a safe pair of hands in tumultuous times, and this reputation is likely to blame for his low profile. The former foreign secretary is known in Conservative Party circles as “Spreadsheet Phil” and has largely been overlooked by the press as a rather dull functionary.
Awkward and angular, he was never David Cameron’s spin doctors’ first choice of spokesman to roll out in front of the cameras. The public record affirms his lack of engagement with the press – between April 2015 and March 2016, at the height of his tenure in the Foreign Office, he officially met with media organizations in Britain just twice.
“Hammond is a complete contrast to Osborne – he’s ‘unmedia friendly,’ said Mr. Beckett. “He’s there to sort out the books, he’s not ambitious.”
When it comes to negotiations with the European Union, Mr. Davis will be the prime minister’s point man. But the powers-that-be in Europe could be forgiven for not having heard of him. Although he was minister for Europe 20 years ago in John Major’s government, Mr. Davis has not held a government position since, making him the ultimate comeback kid.
In 2005, he was initially favorite to beat Mr. Cameron in the Conservative Party leadership election but was ultimately steamrollered by a slicker, younger and more energetic candidate. “David Davis is not a great media personality and the leadership defeat battered him,” said Professor Davis.
During Mr. Cameron’s premiership, the right-leaning Mr. Davis carved out a role as a respected, man-of-the-people voice on parliament’s backbenches and was often called on to provide media insight, particularly on civil liberty issues, his personal passion. But while the appointment of a euroskeptic liberal to the role of chief Brexiteer makes political sense, his wilderness years have given the media few clues as to his likely negotiating stance on Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Mr. Fox does have cabinet experience, having served as defense secretary in Mr. Cameron’s first government. But it ended in scandal in 2011 when it emerged he had given a close friend and lobbyist unofficial access to his department and taken him on foreign trips.
Mr. Fox was personally wounded by the affair and cast out into the cold. Coupled with accusations of budgetary and strategic incompetence by army top brass, mainly over his handling of job cuts and Britain’s intervention in Libya, as well as his reputation as something of a right-wing maverick, the media largely wrote him off in the wake of the scandal.
“This government could mark the end of spin; it will be more businesslike.”
“Fox has always been seen as a bit off kilter,” Mr. Beckett said.
The Scot received little further attention until he stood for the party leadership last week. His poor showing in the contest only seemed to justify the lack of interest shown in him, meaning his appointment as international trade minister came as a huge shock.
Opinions differ as to whether Ms. May’s new team of internationally influential ministers will gain or lose from their low-key media history. With Brexit policies and procedures likely to be picked over by the world’s media with a fine toothcomb, good communications will be vital if the new government is to keep the European Union and the public on side, or at least informed. A failure to do so could be disastrous.
Mr. Beckett thinks a less PR-driven approach could pay dividends. “This government could mark the end of spin; it will be more businesslike,” he said.
But Professor Davis thinks it may come back to haunt the government. “They will have a honeymoon period when they can blame everyone else, for example David Cameron. But over time, their lack of media ability might start to tell,” he said.
Quick guide to the new faces
Boris Johnson needs no introduction, and much has been written in the past few days about Theresa May and her likely relationship with Europe. But here is Handelsblatt Global Edition’s quick guide to the other three major figures tasked with shaping Britain’s future relationship with Europe.
Having served as transport secretary, defense secretary and foreign secretary under David Cameron, Mr. Hammond is one of the most experienced cabinet ministers in Ms. May’s government. He has developed a reputation as a details man and is widely viewed as a “steady as she goes” choice at the Treasury.
The 60-year-old, who was state-school educated, is no stranger to business and finance – he is a self-made millionaire and while in opposition was a key engineer of the Conservative Party’s austerity policy, working closely with fellow hawk George Osborne. It is notable that this strategy of cutting the deficit was one of the first to be scrapped by Ms. May. The new finance minister, known in Britain as chancellor of the exchequer, is a euroskeptic who voted Remain in the referendum. But he has already pleased the City of London by committing to maintaining Britain’s access to the single market, and his deadpan – some say boring – style is likely to soothe market jitters in the short term.
The pragmatic and principled face of the Tory right, David Davis is a longtime euroskeptic and fervent Leave campaigner. He held the then-junior role of Europe minister between 1994 and 1997, treading a fine line between implementing the infamous Maastricht Treaty and keeping his euroskeptic colleagues happy. His wily negotiations earned him the nickname “the charming bastard.”
Defeat in the leadership contest of 2005 gave him time to concentrate on civil liberties issues. He famously stood down from his parliamentary seat in 2008 after accusing the Blair government of eroding personal freedoms, forcing a by-election that he won. He also often criticized Ms. May while she was interior minister for her plans to give the security service sweeping surveillance powers. As the new Secretary for Exiting the European Union, the 67-year-old has already called for “a little time” for consultation and planning before submitting Britain’s formal application to leave the bloc, which he expects to come by the start of next year.
The new Secretary for International Trade, charged with re-establishing Britain’s trade links post-Brexit, is making a shock comeback to the cabinet after resigning in disgrace as defense secretary in 2011 over a lobbying scandal. The right-wing hardliner has always had a small but loyal following in the Conservative Party, encouraging him to stand as party leader in 2005 and 2016. The Scot finished in third and fifth place respectively.
Since his resignation, he has gained a reputation as a campaigner on traditionalist issues, voting against gay marriage and calling for more support for the armed forces and stricter rules on immigration. The 54-year-old, who was state-school educated, studied medicine and worked as a doctor before entering politics, was a staunch Leave supporter during the Brexit campaign. His reappointment has been criticized as “dishonorable” in the left-wing media.
David Reay is an eidtor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: email@example.com