Our man's sideways take on the PM in Grimsby

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 11 Mar 2019

Business editor David Laister joined the nation’s political journalists on their away day to Grimsby, finding himself far more familiar with Orsted’s operations than the Westminsterati’s witterings. 

With the ink still drying on the week’s Offshore Wind Sector Deal, Prime Minister Theresa May’s selection of Orsted’s East Coast Hub for a rousing Friday Brexit speech was the obvious choice for a day on the road, or in the air.

Having breathed confidence and clarity into an industry having a transformative effect on the town – with so much further growth to come and with a decade of delivery now rung up – it appeared a safe bet, with employees ramping up to 400 by the time we’ve transitioned – should a deal with Brussels be struck.

It was also a clever message to a trio of individual European governments keen to ensure a deal is done for the sake of their own economies, a chance to encourage movement on the backstop.

Orsted is Danish owned, and the £24 million investment into Port of Grimsby has enjoyed Government support, so too the clean energy generation it leads the world on, with the ever-larger turbines it buys coming from Siemens Gamesa, a Spanish - German fusion. Add France, Belgium, Holland and Denmark again as potential recipients of this cut-price energy with the UK territorial North Sea having the capacity to power them too, and you can’t question the subliminal, or indeed intentional. 

She didn’t say ‘this is why the UK matters’, but the location did. And while offshore wind became a clear plank, the marine control centre that has been described as Google-like and referred to as Thunderbirds HQ due to the air and sea capability, didn’t see the light of day. Perhaps the impressive view it affords would have posed more complex questions.

For across the Royal Dock the latest Volkswagen Group models were being driven off a vessel, and - more awkwardly - the Toyota terminal area, where exports could dry up if a stark early-in-the-week warning becomes a post-Brexit reality, that future models may not be built in the East Midlands

MORE: Orsted MD tells PM how the Humber leads the world in offshore wind

And so, in a warehouse-proportioned store we gathered. And the criticism came from a BBC onlooker. As she walked confidently in, dressed in leopard print kitten heels and charcoal trouser suit - not high vis jacket and steel toe-caps as would be the norm - it arrived. “Prime Minister looks like she is an auctioneer at Grimsby’s Industrial Closing Down Sale – who chose that awful backdrop? Appalling way to sell NE Lincs,” the words from London, familiar with the patch, hit home. 

I understand the local authority had little knowledge of the visit, and no representation there, with it first mooted on Wednesday as the deal publication was readied to go public. 

Words of wisdom? Our man takes in the PM's speech. 

Vague, and politically neutral was perhaps the order of the day, with Orsted UK managing director Matthew Wright careful to praise “successive governments” for getting to the sector deal. On one shelf ROW 22 was clearly marked on a crate. Race Bank and a turbine reference perhaps, and absolutely nothing to do with that power-wielding Conservative parliamentary group and any ongoing discussions about pending votes. 

The immediacy was all about the content though, and Grimsby got a great billing. This wasn’t a Brexit speech bookended by ‘anytown’ references, the theme flowed through. 

MORE: Highlights from Theresa May's speech

And while the Town Deal and fishing got an airing, our vital seafood processing didn’t. On this, as I pounded the seafront before work, I’d rehearsed my question. Not quite between The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go and Sinatra’s My Way - but with music playing, I’d posed it.

“Prime Minister, we’re here in ‘new’ Grimsby, where yesterday confidence and clarity was injected with the sector deal, but what assurances can you give to ‘constant’ Grimsby, provider of the nation’s seafood, where there is a reliance on a workforce that nudges 30 per cent when it comes to economic migrants.’ I could have gone further, about how they don’t meet the £30,000 salary skill test, about concerns harboured for other fishing communities now far stronger than Grimsby about using fishing ground as future trade bargaining chips, but in the end, she was choosing her questions from a pre-prepared list on the lectern.

And the anger it brought was palpable in the press ranks. ITV’s Libby Wiener,  pictured left, not successful, stood and hollered as the PM turned to leave, citing International Women’s Day and women only getting to ask one question. Had it been Laura Kuenssberg and not John Pienaar on duty for the Beeb, her question would have been foiled, but the response “they’ve been answered by a woman,” was immediate and drew applause. Rinsed, I think, is the term for Libby, and certainly not the ‘Maybot’ she has been characterised as.

Michael Crick, Channel Four’s parliamentary force, was upset he couldn’t speak to employees too. Orsted, while hosting the event, was by no means orchestrating it - and he was fuming. Clearly the MD’s stance wasn't enough. Four wanted more, yet he’d also missed the question cut, after travelling 200- plus miles to hear something that was broadcast by Number 10’s own press team on Twitter.

So, missing out on the Q&A list, I had to let the town do my talking too. On her way to and from East Coast Hub, if not glued to a screen or phone orchestrating ongoing negotiations, the PM will have seen Alfred Enderby’s smoke house, with its hard-fought EU Protected Geographic Indication, the towering Ross House home of Young’s Seafood, and the antiquated border inspection post close to Grimsby Fish Market - so often the setting for such visits. It would, hopefully, have brought food standards, frictionless supply and the stability of the workforces into sharp focus, as my question failed to make it off the Central Promenade it was constructed on. 

A senior port official has lightheartedly previously commented they don’t yet know if they need a shed or a palace when it comes to checks on imported food ...we may find out very soon. Bloomsberg’s Rob Hutton asked about “ships around the world now sailing that don’t know what customs regime they will be arriving in” - that’s how late in the day we are now. 

So finally for Mrs May, on her way out, was a one-way tour around the Kasbah and Ice Factory in all its ‘gory’. Much store is held by the Grimsby Town Deal, and a future in our own hands, but a tremendous amount of money, public and private, will be needed to make good ambition for these relics from a largely historic industry. How historic today may be for May and for the UK, we’ll wait and see.  

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