Theresa May is facing pressure to transform her approach to shaping Britain’s post-Brexit trade links amid scepticism from business leaders about the scale and ambition of a forthcoming trip to Japan.
Sky News has learnt that the Prime Minister wants to restrict the size of the business delegation that will join her trip to the world’s third-biggest economy later this month.
She is also said to be keen to avoid what a person close to her Downing Street operation described as the “theatre” of signing ceremonies co-ordinated to unveil bilateral corporate deals.
Sources said that as few as 15-20 business leaders might accompany Mrs May on the visit, which is scheduled to include talks with Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, on issues such as trade and defence.
A delegation of that size would be a far cry from the scores of executives who were invited to join her predecessor, David Cameron, on similar trips to Asia – although he took just under 40 private sector bosses on a trade mission to Japan in April 2012.
The delegation travelling with Mrs May will include Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, and her counterpart at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), Adam Marshall, according to a source.
The list is still being finalised, with one Downing Street official suggesting that responsibility for putting together the delegation partly lay with the Department for International Trade.
Further names are expected to be added in the coming days, according to one source, while efforts to corral a list of business deals to be announced during the PM’s trip have been accelerated in the last few days, they said.
The final number of business leaders who accompany Mrs May could yet exceed 20, the source added.
A weak performance in terms of deal announcements during the trade mission would risk reinforcing the belief of many in the British business community that Mrs May has only a lukewarm enthusiasm for the success of private enterprise.
“The deal-signings are what these trips are all about, and especially now that the UK needs to show it is wide open for business,” said the head of one major company who has accompanied ministers on previous trade missions.
“If that really is her approach, it will need to change.”
Another boss said the PM “should be trying to take a big plane-load of people who want to do deals with Japanese companies”.
Mrs May has sought to shake off the impression that she is hostile to the private sector since she returned to Downing Street in June by effectively reinstating a version of the advisory group set up by Mr Cameron.
However, the lack of clarity at this stage of the Brexit negotiations has caused some foreign investors to press the pause button on significant investment in the UK.
Mrs May faces the additional headache that many of Japan’s corporate giants have expressed particular alarm at the decision to leave the European Union.
While Nissan, the car manufacturer, has restated its commitment to its plant in Sunderland, a powerful Japanese business lobbying group urged the UK Government to negotiate “with deeper consideration for the economy”.
Sir Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat leader who led a number of sizeable trade missions when he was Business Secretary during the 2010-15 Coalition, described the PM’s ambition as “modest”.
Speaking to Sky News, Sir Vince said her approach would “raise questions”.
“She may be trying to avoid raising expectations after the embarrassment of her visit to India [in November 2016], where the host government made it clear that it was not interested in special deals with Britain.
“Japan has been very disappointed by Brexit, particularly after so many of its companies have based operations in Britain because of the acess it gives them to the single market.
Sir Vince said he believed the “pickings from the Japan trip will be very modest”.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said the “composition of the business delegation will be announced in due course” but refused to name any of those who would attend at this stage.
An earlier statement quoted by Reuters last week said the delegation accompanying Mrs May would “showcase the strength of British business, the shared confidence in the UK-Japan economic relationship as we leave the EU, and the potential for future growth”.
The CBI and BCC both declined to comment.