Prime minister Theresa May has a veritable minefield to navigate at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, today.  Her speech about the UK’s ambitions towards setting safe and ethical standards in developing Artificial Intelligence technology may prove to be a respite from the other diplomatic tasks the PM faces. 

Probably her greatest challenge will be renewing whatever is left of the UK’s “special relationship” with the US which has been sorely tested by president Donald Trump. Only a year ago, when he received May as his first visit by a foreign leader, he awkwardly held her hand as they walked outside of the White House. That has turned out to be a brief highlight in their interactions which have soured after Trump re-tweeted racist Britain First tweets and cancelled his scheduled January visit to London.

Trump’s first visit to Davos is dominating the event, but it isn’t May’s most pressing priority. The PM also has to counter the claims made by her former communications director. Today, in an article for The Times, Katie Perrior said that at last year’s forum Theresa May was more interested in fondue than in pressing the flesh—speaking and meeting with influential people. Even more importantly than performing for the photographers, Mrs May actually has to compete with the highly charismatic French president Emmanuel Macron.

Macron, the neoliberal darling of the forum, is the chalk to Trump’s cheese. As these popular, polar opposites are juxtaposed at Davos, May must avoid another gaffe that makes it look as if Trump is leading her down his populist path.  Standing closer to the other global leaders won’t cost Britain any post-Brexit trade deals with the US, though. The prime minister’s mettle is being tested on the global stage at Davos, today, and we can only cross our fingers, in hopes she is learning from the lessons of her previous missteps. Her wearing the proper boots for the snowy locale, this time, is but one small step in the right direction.

May’s second Davos speech

The US has borrowed the phrase “Open for Business” from Theresa May’s 19 January 2017 address to Davos which laid out a bold vision for the UK. Her message to the global elites last year that they must change or die was well received by business leaders. This year, the PM is following on a similar topic by looking ahead to the safety and ethical challenges inherent in developing Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology and social media regulation. 

The PM said she wants Britain to “be a world leader in innovation-friendly regulation.” Her message was inclusive and forward thinking, in keeping with the tone set by other speakers, when she said “we are only just seeing the beginning of what AI can achieve.” She also promised that the government’s new business strategy will make the UK one of the best places in the world to start and run a business. 

She concluded with her stern message about how social media companies must design systems that automatically delete unacceptable content and “step up to their responsibilities. No one wants to be known as a platform for terrorism, or the best place for child pornography,” she said. She ended, saying,” Let’s renew our commitment to collaboration—and set ourselves on a path to benefit all people.” 

While her speech was well received, it was delivered to a room that was only two-thirds full and she did not have a question and answer session afterwards. That was a good bit of planning since, moments after she spoke, President Trump’s arrival sent a majority of the delegates scurrying to the corridors to catch a glimpse of him. As had been anticipated, Trump’s first visit to Davos is a distracting spectacle. Moreover, he and his entourage of former corporate executives perfectly exemplify the embodiment of the worst example of “Davos Man.” 

“Davos Man”

Gender equality has been one of the major themes seen today at this Davos forum. There has long been criticism that the over 2,500 powerful people annually attending WEF have been disproportionately made up of men. The vast majority of elite, wealthy men has led to the phrase “Davos Man” being coined. 

This year, for the first time in the event’s 48-year history, the 2018 summit is being chaired entirely by women. The seven co-chairs include International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg. 

Solberg expressed her goal towards creating a “sustainable welfare society” which she said requires “inclusive growth” where “both men and women must be able to take part in the labour market on equal terms.”

Co-chair Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) said: “Davos Man needs to listen if he cares about his families and particularly about the question of equality and equal opportunity for his daughters.” Burrow added: “If you ask me whether this rise of the alpha leader has created a wave of misogyny, you know my answer is yes.”

Theresa May addressed the Dorchester scandal dominating newspaper headlines back in the UK, saying, “I was frankly appalled when I read the report of this Presidents Club event.” The PM said that the incident of sexual harassment at the charity dinner showed that “there is still a lot more work for us to do.” She thought that attitudes, rather than rules, need to be changed. 

Jack Ma or Fondue?

At Davos 2017, the prime minister turned down a meeting with Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder, in favour of a cosy fondue with her aides, according to her former communications director Katie Perrior. She criticised the PM for not emulating other world leaders who use the event to “woo major businesses to their shores.” This year, Theresa May was seen speaking to South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who was told at Davos by  Christine Lagarde that he needs to rebuild his country’s business confidence. There was no indication she had meetings with any successful business leaders. In terms of charm offensive, the PM is desperately falling behind the French president.

On Monday evening, prior to the forum, Emmanuel Macron hosted a gathering of 140 global CEOs at Versailles over a lavish meal prepared by France’s greatest chef, Alain Ducasse. Admittedly, had the prime minister attempting wooing businesses on the scale of Macron’s regal soirée, the British public, and the budget-conscious Chancellor would be howling at the expense. It simply isn’t the British way of doing business, either.

We are left with our “strong and stable” leader meeting with the “stable genius,” on the side lines of WEP today. Theresa May was the first person at Davos to have a meeting with Trump, after the White House had previously said the president would be too busy to speak with her. Prior to her meeting, the PM said that Trump’s visit to the UK was still on the cards, insisting the “special relationship between the UK and the US is as strong as it ever has been.”  Trump’s brash keynote address tomorrow, on Friday, 26 January is likely to overshadow any of the understated improvements or errors the prime minister will have made at Davos2018.