British prime minister Theresa May tried to play it safe at the World Economic Forum in Davos by giving a speech with few references to Brexit. It didn’t work.
Last year, May’s speech at Davos was full of optimism for a “global Britain,” unshackled from the European Union. It didn’t go down well. Today, she reiterated her promise of the UK continuing to be a “global advocate for free trade,” developing bilateral deals with countries all over the world, then quickly moved on.
On the main stage, to a half-filled room, May promised Britain would a “world leader in innovation-friendly regulation.” Her speech meandered across different technology subjects, from the fear of jobs lost to automation, to corporate social responsibility, to establishing the UK as a leader in AI. She repeated the need to “seize the opportunity” presented by technology, using laws and rules to make sure the future works for everyone.
But if May hoped to impress the Davos crowd with a talk that echoed the Forum’s sub-theme of “shaping the agile governance of technology,” she failed.
A noticeable number of the audience started drifting out of the hall before the end. Global leaders like Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron had used their stage time to give spirited rebuttals to protectionism and isolationism, and were greeted with rapturous applause. Macron even got a standing ovation. May’s speech was simply met with polite applause.
Leaving the hall, one attendee sighed and said to a friend, “Well, it was just an address.” “Yes, with all the buzzwords,” the other responded.