A truly global Britain would not meddle with the market – Theresa May's government must be careful how it deals with De La Rue, GKN, Melrose and Sky

Julian Harris
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Theresa May Tours The UK On The Anniversary Of Triggering Article 50
Theresa May has a lot on her plate – including key decisions about corporate Britain (Source: Getty)

With the Conservatives and Labour neck-and-neck in the polls and a Brexit-shaped mountain building up in her in-tray, the last thing Theresa May needs is a trio of tricky situations emanating from the business world.

Yet that is precisely the situation in which the Prime Minister finds herself. Away from the far weightier concerns of Russian aggression, Trump's trade war and so on, her government must decide where it stands on two controversial corporate mega-deals and one contended outsourcing arrangement.

A Downing Street spokesperson insisted yesterday that it is "standard process" to wait an extra fortnight until it reveals which company will make Britain's post-Brexit blue passports, following a highly politicised objection from London-listed De La Rue.

Read more: De La Rue to appeal new passport contract snub

Meanwhile, across the pond, the management at 21st Century Fox was in bolshy mood as it took aim at "a number of unsupported and fanciful assertions" made by British MPs who object to the company's ambition to buy the part of Sky it does not already own.

And finally, the government must decide whether or not national security concerns give it grounds to intervene in Melrose's £8bn hostile takeover of engineer GKN.

WIth all three cases, the government should heed the words of Fox when it warns against political interventions that "compromise the integrity of a system which is supposed to be objective, evidenced-based and grounded on the application of established legal principles".

Read more: Takeover decisions should not be subject to political caprice

In this newspaper's view, there is absolutely no reason to favour a British company when it comes to the production of passports. Moreover, there seems nothing wrong with one British company, Melrose, taking over another, GKN. While politicians grapple to find any aspect of the deal that could fall under "national security" concerns, the objections echoing around Westminster sound like nothing more than jingoism or managerialist socialism.

And while legitimate media plurality tests should be applied to any takeover of Sky, the political unpopularity of Rupert Murdoch among some quarters of the chattering classes must not be allowed to skew any decision.

Read more: The government has warned it may block Melrose's takeover of GKN

The chance of British MPs looking favourably upon an argument from Fox executives is, admittedly, miniscule. However, yesterday's statement raised a key question about the UK's direction post-Brexit. Trade deals aside, leaving the EU could allow future British governments to take a far more dirigiste approach than has been the case in recent decades. Thus, the noise surrounding De La Rue, GKN and Sky forms a useful test case.

If May and her colleagues truly want to deliver a "global Britain", they must resist the temptation to take a heavy-handed approach for the sake of short-term political gain.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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