Theresa May has vowed she will not allow her hands to be tied in negotiating a post-Brexit future for Britain, as she travelled to India on a mission to lay the groundwork for an “ambitious” trade deal.
In an indication that she will not allow the UK’s preparations to be held back by EU rules blocking members from striking bilateral deals, Mrs May intends to use the three-day trip to seek official-level talks to pave the way for a post-Brexit free trade agreement, as well as moves to break down existing barriers to commerce and investment.
On her first trade mission as PM, Mrs May was joined by representatives of 33 companies from around the UK in an effort to “reboot an age-old relationship (with India) in this age of opportunity”.
Officials said the trip would see commercial deals sealed to create 1,370 jobs in the UK, as well as the establishment of a new UK-India “smart cities” urban partnership with the potential to unlock opportunities worth £2 billion.
Following the setback of last week’s High Court ruling that she must seek Parliament’s approval to trigger talks to withdraw from the EU, Mrs May issued a warning to Remain-backing MPs and peers that they must “accept what the people decided” rather than try to block Brexit.
And she indicated she remains determined to resist demands from Labour and other parties to spell out her negotiating strategy for withdrawal talks under Article 50 of the EU treaties, insisting that “putting all our cards on the table” was “not in our national interest”.
The trip comes as the Government prepares to appeal against the judges’ decision in the Supreme Court in a bid to preserve Mrs May’s chances of hitting her target of triggering Article 50 by the end of March.
The PM will hold more than two hours of talks with her Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, as well as meeting business leaders in the capital New Delhi and southern commercial hub Bangalore.
Speaking ahead of her departure, Mrs May said: “While others seek to tie our negotiating hands, the Government will get on with the job of delivering the decision of the British people.
“It was MPs who overwhelmingly decided to put the decision in their hands. The result was clear. It was legitimate. MPs and peers who regret the referendum result need to accept what the people decided.
“And now we need to turn our minds to how we get the best outcome for our country. That means sticking to our plan and timetable, getting on with the work of developing our negotiating strategy and not putting all our cards on the table – that is not in our national interest and it won’t help us get the best deal for Britain.”
Britain and India were “natural partners” with shared interests in delivering jobs, developing new technologies and tackling terrorism and climate change, said Mrs May.
“This is a partnership about our shared security and shared prosperity,” she said.
“It is a partnership of potential. And on this visit I intend to harness that potential, rebooting an age-old relationship in this age of opportunity and with that helping to build a better Britain.”
Mrs May is likely to face pressure from her hosts about the availability of UK visas for Indian workers and students, amid unease over higher salary thresholds for skilled workers announced by the Home Office just days before her arrival as part of ongoing efforts to reduce non-EU migration.
Indian tech body Nasscom has called for a high-skilled worker mobility agreement with Britain, warning: “A system that restricts the UK’s ability to access talent is also likely to restrict the growth and productivity of the UK economy.”
Meanwhile, the head of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci), A Didar Singh, warned that UK-Indian trade faces a “double hit”.
“Exports from the UK to India have been declining,” Mr Singh told The Guardian.
“Now, exports from India to the UK will also decline because you’ve lost 18% of your pound’s value. So if I’m sending something to the UK and getting a lower return on it, I’m going to have a think about that. It’s a double hit.”
Among deals expected to be confirmed during the visit are:
A £1.2 million joint venture between the Pandrol Group UK and Rahee Group in India to set up a manufacturing plant for rail projects;
A £15 million imaging and diagnostic centre in Chennai by Lyca Health UK; and
A £350 million investment from British start-up Kloudpad in high-tech electronics manufacturing in Kochi.
Both governments are also due to sign an intellectual property co-operation agreement, while the UK will commit to extending assistance to help India improve its business environment, which has seen it languish in 130th place in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index.
Joining Mrs May on her visit were International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, trade minister Greg Hands, as well as business figures including Standard Life chairman Sir Gerry Grimstone, Standard Chartered chairman Sir John Peace, Diageo chief executive Ivan Menezes and Aviva CEO David McMillan, as well as a number of small businesses.
Mrs May is also due to pay her respects at the Raj Ghat memorial to Mahatma Gandhi during her stay in New Delhi.
Indian government spokesman Vikas Swarup confirmed Mrs May would face questions over visas, telling The Observer: “In the last five years or so, the number of Indian students enrolling in UK universities has gone down by almost 50% – from around 40,000 to about 20,000 now. This has happened because of restrictions on post-study stay in the UK.
“We will continue to raise our concerns regarding mobility with the UK. Mobility of people is closely linked to free flow of finance, goods and services.”
Former business secretary Sir Vince Cable said his efforts to forge a UK-India trade deal during the coalition were “screwed up” in part by Mrs May’s decision as home secretary to scrap the post-study work visa, which had allowed Indian students to pursue jobs for two years after graduation.
“May in particular was very obstructive of any attempt to make a genuine generous concession, and that was one of the things that screwed up the negotiation,” Sir Vince told The Observer.
India’s high commissioner in London Dinesh Patnaik told the Mail on Sunday: “Students, tourists and short-term visitors are not migrants under any definition.
“Post-Brexit, you need Indians. Our tourists … don’t come to Britain due to difficult visa conditions.”
Downing Street said the UK had “a strong story to tell” about making visas available to attract the “brightest and best from India to the UK.
Meanwhile, the Community union has urged Mrs May to press the New Delhi authorities to use their influence on Indian firm Tata to act as a “responsible employer” towards its steel workers in Britain.
The Sunday Telegraph obtained a letter from the union’s general secretary Roy Rickhuss, telling the PM her trip “could be pivotal in securing the future of this vital industry of strategic importance”.
Speaking at Heathrow before heading off to India, Mrs May sad: “I’m very pleased that this is my first bilateral visit outside of Europe and it’s to India.
“India is a key strategic partner with the UK and I’m pleased also that I’m taking a number of businesses with me – not just large businesses but small and medium-sized businesses as well, because there are huge opportunities for British business in trading with India, and we know that we have significant investment here in the UK from India.
“So this is a really important partnership and I’m going to be building on that in the discussions I’m having in India.”
Asked if she was ready to compromise on the terms of Brexit following the High court setback, Mrs May said: ” I think what we all have to remember – and MPs and peers have to remember – is we had a vote on June 23, a majority of the British people voted to leave the EU. The Government is now getting on with that.
“I want to ensure that we get the bet possible deal for the UK as we leave the EU. That’s the best possible deal for trading with and operating in the single European market.
“But alongside that the UK will be a confident outward-looking nation taking its place on the world stage, looking to build relationships around the globe.
“That’s exactly what trips like this to India are about – building those relationships for future opportunities for the UK.”