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Brexit: Ten questions facing Birmingham

Brexit: Ten questions facing Birmingham

🕔27.Jun 2016

In the second of our posts reflecting on the impact of Brexit, Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson takes a look at the questions facing Greater Birmingham. 

We live in extraordinary times. Nobody has seen anything like the political, economic and social events unfolding after last week’s shock Leave result in the EU referendum.

The only thing we seem to know so far is…there is no plan. Messrs Johnson, Gove and Farage seem to have mislaid that important folder. From what they – or any of the Leave camps can remember – they can’t agree.

According to Boris, Dave (the outgoing PM) should have had one but he’s been too busy ploughing back into his box sets after a gruelling campaign and Gideon (currently the Chancellor) went missing in the garden at Dorneywood with no mobile reception until early this morning.

As for the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn is presently busy interviewing the Constituency Youth Officer from Cleethropes with a view to making him shadow foreign secretary.

There are big questions for Britain and for Europe – but so too for Greater Birmingham. We could wait to see what happens at Westminster, but I don’t know about you I’ve become overly familiar with a certain phrase in recent weeks: #TakeControl.

I hesitate to write anything as the news has a habit of overtaking any reporting or analysis right now, but here are ten questions that strike me at the beginning of what’s likely to be another tumultuous week.

1. What does the count tell us about ourselves?

For those of us supporting Remain but expecting a close run contest overall, results in the West Midlands and Birmingham were surprising. We live in the region with the biggest proportion of Leave voters. Birmingham saw a marginal win for Leave, but a victory nonetheless. A divided nation and a divided city.

As many of us are proud to point out, Greater Birmingham’s strengths are its youthfulness and diversity; being open and outward looking and where community cohesion is good. Indeed, we thought, diversity in all its forms was our trump card.

Whilst many voters will have have cast their ballot on the basis of not buying the European project, and all its democratic deficiencies, or not trusting forecasts of economic doom, it is highly likely much of the Leave electorate will have marked a cross to rise up against the establishment and the metropolitan elite or to register their feelings on immigration.

There is real and palpable distrust of London, those in power and people doing well out of globalisation in cities. Meanwhile, incidents of racial hatred during and after the campaign seem to be on the rise.

2. Where now for devolution?

Philosophically, the vote should provide strength for the devolution case. People have told politicians they are fed up with decisions being made too far away and with ‘business as usual’.

The debate has been largely about identity – who are we and where is our place in the world? That might help those of us who champion devolution, but just like those who didn’t care for Europe there are plenty of voters (not to mention local politicians) who don’t like the idea of elected mayors and all the other ‘imposed’ arrangements.

Practically, devolution is going to have its work cut out. Westminster and Whitehall (not to mention Brussels) are going to be busy dealing with the economic fallout, putting in place new political leaderships and the complex process of untangling us from the European system.

That late convert to devolution, George Osborne, could be gone from the Treasury and possibly government in weeks. Who will be our godfather in government then? Who will answer the phone to negotiate devo deal 2?

3. Where are the leaders?

As Chamber boss Paul Faulkner has been musing on Twitter over the weekend, we need leaders to step up in these unprecedented time.

We need figures from business, politics and civil society at a local and regional level to step up to the plate as well as nationally.

Who else will now emerge to give Mr Simon a good contest? Will Mr Street get off the fence? Will Digby Jones, that noble Baron, former CBI boss and ex-minister, take his campaign against the establishment into a mayoral contest?

Is it time for Cllr Clancy to become an important figure on Labour’s national stage? Along with shadow ministers, there are council leaders across the country who are asking questions about the future of their party. Can he continue to tackle Birmingham’s many challenges, but speak for the city on a bigger stage too without fear of the Corbyistas and Momentum brigade?

4. Who’s driving the Midlands Engine into the cabinet room?

The ministerial champion of the Midlands Engine is, just in case you missed it, Sajid Javid. In his spare time, he’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills and MP for Bromsgrove.

He popped up on the Andrew Marr programme yesterday morning, presumably with a brief to calm down business and be just about the only official ambassador for HM Government on the media days into a crisis.

Don’t worry, he’s going to have a round table.

There have been questions over his performance championing the Midlands at cabinet level. With George Osborne’s stock marked down, that champion of Northern Powerhouse, it’s a good time for Mr Javid to show new vision and leadership for our patch. On yesterday’s performance, he’s going to need some help.

5. Will Tom Watson be Interim Leader within days (maybe for longer than a few months) and Siôn Simon Metro Mayor come next May?

Even with their track record for plotting, I bet even they did not imagine such a turn of events as they planned out events over curries. But, if such a scenario plays out it could be an interesting development for the West Midlands.

6. What next for Gisela Stuart?

It would be fair to say that the chair of Vote Leave has played, at least in the public eye, second fiddle to Johnson and Gove. Every time I saw her on the Boris Bus (that one mentioning EU, £350M and the NHS), I imagined her holding an ice cream for the former London Mayor. What will she do next? Will she be part of a team negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU. What effect will the result and her role have on her standing as MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, particularly if there is a snap election?

7. Will Birmingham follow Scotland and London and be at the front of the queue seeking to retain membership of the single market?

It was noticeable in Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on Friday morning, just about the only political leader who seemed to have any clue what to say or do in the aftermath, that she emphasised the need to stay in the single market and cited common cause with Labour’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

Mayor Khan has been busy too underlining London’s love of its multicultural population and his desire to keep the capital in the single market, not least to protect its financial sector.

Scotland and London have the advantage of an electorate that wanted to Remain and, in different ways, established devolution arrangements.

What about Birmingham and the single market? Being part of the EU has been an important feature of Birmingham’ regeneration (think ICC for one) and its recent economic renaissance (think of all those new investors).

Siôn Simon, current front runner for Metro Mayor, is on record stating the region needs a say in Brexit negotiations.

Britain retaining its place in the single market would seem to be top of the list in all those invisible plans. Even if a Norway style deal can be done, will an arrangement involving payments to the EU and continuing free movement be acceptable to the 17 million who turned out to vote Leave?

Chief blogger Paul Dale on the political earthquake and the aftershocks that are only just beginning.

8. What will the effect be on key sectors like professional/financial, manufacturing, creative and education/research?

Sectors like advanced manufacturing and business and professional services (BPS) are at the heart of the economic strategies outlined by GBSLEP and WMCA. Just what will the effect be of Brexit, especially if Britain does not retain full access to the single market?

In just about every sector in which I work, like professional services, creative and education, being part of Europe is absolutely fundamental. The movement of talent and ideas has been strengthen by the relationships forged through membership of the EU.

GBSLEP chair Andy Street was asked at the partnership’s recent AGM what contingency arrangements were in place in the event of Brexit. He said that in common with the UK Government and others, GBSLEP was not expecting a Leave vote and hadn’t planned for such.

It turns out, apparently, that Treasury and the Bank of England did have contingency plans.

Mr Street, along with GBSLEP and WMCA colleagues, might need to rethink some of their plans and take a prominent role in shaping Greater Birmingham’s influence over what happens next.

9. What impact on inward investment?

Increases in foreign direct investment, business and cultural tourism, business start ups, young professionals moving out London have all featured in Greater Birmingham’s recent story, with much credit due to GBSLEP and Business Birmingham.

HS2 and connectivity, key sectors like professional services and life sciences, quality of life and much besides have been critical factors. But being part of the EU and the single market will have been part of the attraction to many companies investing in Greater Birmingham.

So, what now? With Brexit more than two years away and without a coherent plan or any national leadership, it’s almost impossible for GBSLEP and Business Birmingham to devise a revised strategy. But that’s what officers in Baskerville House will need to do.

10. Birmingham is open. Who’s in?

We’re open to business, to investment, to trade, to talent, to new ideas.

Our city was built by opening its doors and doing things differently.

Greater Birmingham has been on a roll of late. The city is booming and there has been a confidence in the city for the last two years that you can almost taste and touch.

With all our strengths and assets, with HS2, HSBC and devolution on the way, we need to remain positive and outward looking.

But it will need, yet again, original thinking and new ways of doing things. As well as Cllr Clancy, politicians across the piece, GBSLEP and WMCA, business leaders and many others need to engage and enthuse and set a confident course.

Who’s in?

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