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Brexit: time for business

Brexit: time for business

🕔18.Jul 2018

Brexit: have so many words ever been written about one political issue? Probably not. Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson assesses Brexit ‘progress’ and calls on business and new political leaders to step up.

Is there anything new I could possibly write that will add to the sum of human understanding or affect opinion? Probably…almost certainly not.

First, a declaration – I voted Remain. As I said ahead of the vote, the Remain campaign was rubbish and I could feel the vote going, in my terms, the wrong way.

Why the Brexit debate needs to go beyond the playground

Many of the political class – the “establishment” if you like – had not understood the prevailing mood of the nation or that voting factors went far beyond macro-economic arguments.

In a tumultuous political seven days, two things particularly struck me on Brexit last week. First, Greater Birmingham Chambers boss Paul Faulkner implored businesses to ignore the political distractions – resignations of Davis, Johnson et al – and move ahead with Brexit planning.

At the end of the week, The Birmingham Post reported on the Local Democracy Reporting Service’s efforts to unearth a “secret” Brexit report prepared by Birmingham city council. The report remains concealed, but it is said a new impact assessment is being prepared alongside the West Midlands Combined Authority.

Paul is right to suggest business leaders prepare for exit.

Indeed, there seems to be less scenario planning in some sectors for Brexit than I would have imagined. I suspect, following events of the last couple of weeks, Boards will be moving Brexit up the risk and action lists.

Until very recently, business has been too quiet on Brexit. The private sector needs to inform both political decision making and public understanding, rather than see politics as an untouchable or ridiculous game being played somewhere else.

There seems to be a collective feeling among the business community not to appear to be trampling over the democratic will of the people as exercised on 23 June 2016. Lobbying has happened behind the scenes, especially by trade bodies and some business leaders with regular access to the Business Department and Number 10.

Carolyn Fairbairn kicked off the Customs Union debate in an impressive speech at the University of Warwick, attended by the Chamberlain Files. It was one of few agenda setting contributions from the business community. She said “time is running out.” That was January.

But it was only in the week or two leading up the the Chequers showdown that we heard from the likes of Airbus and BMW. It is clear that JLR has been bending the ear of Mayor Andy Street.

With Brexit – and the underlying issues of globalisation, immigration, sovereignty and the rest – causing so many divisions, reaching a compromise that balances the democratic will (albeit via a close result) and the short to medium term pragmatic, economic realities (moving components, goods, food and essential workers across borders) was always going to be challenging, to put it mildly.

But the Government’s handling has been inept. Triggering Article 50 – after Gina Miller’s legal challenge and then a catastrophic snap election – months before the Government had reached a settled policy, which lasted all of 48 hours – has been something to behold.

In the interests of balance, it’s also worth remembering Jeremy Corbyn called for Article 50 to be triggered hours after the referendum result. Just imagine…

To her credit, it appears Mrs May, encouraged by the likes of Business Secretary Greg Clark and Chancellor Philip Hammond, had been listening to business – in particular to industries that rely on integrated supply chains and ‘just-in-time’ processes.

But the Cabinet position agreed at Chequers and now reflected in the White Paper – the first time a policy formed in Government has become what the PM terms a “deal” – is a compromise that pleases almost nobody. A “fudge” or a “mush”.

The foot soldiers were not warmed up to the idea – with even David Davis in the dark it would seem – so the PM has been communicating the policy on the backfoot. This week’s parliamentary shenanigans and cliff edge votes are testimony to that.

The “deal” is some way from ever turning into an agreement with the European Union. Even if the PM could convince both Conservative soft and hard Brexiteers of its merits, which is highly doubtful, after contact with what many Tories think of as the enemy – the EU – further compromises are inevitable. Any party consensus would then immediately fall apart.

Boris Johnson resumed duties at the Daily Telegraph this week to spell out just what on earth “Global Britain” is supposed to be. As he said himself, it’s not much more than a slogan.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a slogan and a vision. I’ve written a few. But, you expect policy to be based on more than vacuous nonsense about returning to the heady days of Victorian beards.

Business and the country at large doesn’t need to be told to “believe” in itself, be more “self-confident” and “open” by a failed Foreign Secretary who cannot even truthfully represent facts in his resignation letter or whose inability to absorb a brief means a British woman still languishes in an Iranian jail.

Going into the Referendum, David Cameron’s Government had no plan B for Leave. Coming out of their win, Vote Leave had no implementation plan.

There are many who believe that the UK will be economically better off outside the EU in the long term. But there are many more whose Brexit beliefs are not centred on economics.

Far too much of the Leave narrative – especially among members of the Tory European Research Group (ERG) – is pure ideology. Far more rhetoric than rational.

Many rely on nothing more than the way 17.4M people voted on an overly simple, binary question rather than engaging in the complex, practical steps needed to both respect the result as well as produce a framework that keeps the ports running, medicines and food moving, supply chains intact and jobs secure.

Just what has happened to the Conservative Party? The ‘party of business’ seems to treat its core constituency with increasing contempt.

Anna Soubry got it spot on in the Chamber on Monday.

The respected Bagehot column in the Economist suggests that the party has, in terms, lost the plot. 

Mrs May remains in office due to what the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg describes as TINA (there is no alternative). Who in their right mind would want the job of PM right now, let alone be able to command the confidence of their party or Parliament. Moreover, which Tory MP would risk being responsible for letting Mr Corbyn into Downing Street.

In normal circumstances, this would be a gift-wrapped opportunity for the principal opposition party. But sadly, Labour is pursing a policy of constructive ambiguity and touting six ‘red lines’ that, as with all political ‘red lines’, shift in the sands.

The best efforts of Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer are usually contradicted within minutes by Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner or the not-so-secret Brexiteer Jeremy Corbyn.

The Liberal Democrats, which should be the natural home for Hard Remainers, are struggling to cut through. With their current and former leader missing in parliamentary action on Monday, the party underlined its political irrelevance.

Now is the time for the voices of business and a new generation of political leaders.

Asked about Brexit, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street usually points to his Sky News interview with Sophie Ridge and comment piece in the Times. He has backed Theresa May’s Chequers plan.

Whether Andy Street makes the right political play in terms of Brexit and the West Midlands economy in the coming weeks and months could have a big impact on his re-election chances in 2020.

In a recent Huffington Post interview, he told any Cabinet member who did not back the outcome of Chequers to “get off the bus.” Some clearly didn’t fancy the ride.

Paul Waugh didn’t ask him what he would do if the agreement fell apart and the proposed customs arrangement proved unworkable or disagreeable to the EU.

I happen to believe we have the least impressive set of political leaders in my lifetime – just when we need them most. That’s not to say we don’t have good politicians, of all hues, who are motivated by public service and who have beliefs, skills and knowledge.

Why we have very few top class leaders gracing the Treasury and opposition green benches is more than enough of a subject for another blog – or probably a book.

No politician has been able to develop a proposition that responds not just to the Brexit vote, but the reasons for it. Nobody seems have a vision that will unite a majority of the country and also carve out a policy agenda that meets concerns about skills, housing, the NHS and the rest.

The West Midlands voted nearly 60/40 in favour of Leaving. The whole UK vote must be respected, at least until one of three states materialises:

  • no deal is possible (which would be disastrous)
  • the one reached would clearly render economic harm
  • or public opinion shifts considerably ahead of exit.

We are not in any of those positions yet. The case for a second referendum of any form has not been sufficiently made.

Yesterday’s ruling by the Electoral Commission does not change the referendum result. Remain was beaten by a more effective campaign, regardless of bus slogans and databases.

However, I have long thought that a deal might neither be reached or will not be ratified by at least one of 29 or more parliaments. In those circumstances, voters will be heading back to some form of ballot box before long.

Andy Street has the potential, outside of Parliament, to reach voters across the centre ground of British politics. He’s a very able communicator who understands complex policy challenges including the impact of a hard Brexit on trade and jobs.

He and other politicians, across the parties, are now needed to bridge the enormous divides and vacuums in British politics.

The Mayor, WMCA, LEPs and local authorities need to provide assessments of what could happen in local/regional economies based on the scenarios before us.

Business also needs to speak up and speed up planning.

We need real, practical information about jobs, investment, supply chains and exports. Not the kind of GDP forecasts that mean little to the average voter, but facts about what happens if components are delayed at the border or financial services in Birmingham and London are suddenly losing out to Frankfurt and Paris.

If Mrs May can solider on through this full parliamentary week, an extended transition period – as suggested by Nick Clegg this week and not ruled out by Andy Street in May – seems more practical than either a leadership contest or second referendum before 29 March 2019. In fact, if either one of those plebiscites is invoked, a delay to Brexit Day will become essential.

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