PM begins to shape Brexit – what impact on mayoral contest?
Theresa May, the Prime Minister, made a long awaited and much trailed speech on what “Brexit means Brexit” might actually, er, mean. But, will the shape of Brexit – including leaving the single market – have any impact on the election for the first West Midlands Mayor, asks Kevin Johnson?
The PM’s speech at Lancaster House today made three clear points – she explicitly confirmed the UK will leave the single market; both Houses of Parliament will have a vote on the final deal before it comes into force and she has not ruled out a transitional or phased deal. She also laid out a ‘cake’ strategy (as in wanting it and eating it, © Boris Johnson) for membership of the Customs Union – she wants to give up parts of it but will not rule out associate membership or some other halfway house.
So, that’s all clear then. Well, not really but it’s a start. Mrs May listed twelve broad objectives for her approach to a “Global Britain” outside of the UK:
As much certainty as possible
Control over laws
Common Travel Area
Control over immigration
Right to remain for UK nationals living abroad and EU nationals living in the UK.
Protecting workers’ rights
A trade deal with the EU
Trade deals with other countries
Continuing to lead on science and innovation
Continued cooperation on crime, terrorism and security
A phased implementation process.
Brexit will inevitably dominate the national political conversation for months and years to come. But there is a small matter of a mayoral election coming up in the next few months. Will Europe become an issue in this contest?
With UKIP now in the frame and the Lib Dems focusing their efforts on their pro-EU and pro Single Market stance, quite possibly.
Beverley Nielsen, Liberal Democrat Candidate for West Midlands Mayor, was first off the mark in responding to the PM’s keynote speech.
If the policies outlined in Mrs May’s speech become reality, the damage to the industrial economy of the West Midlands will be on a scale which hasn’t been seen since World War II.
We export more than any other UK region, bar London and the South-East, and our biggest single overseas market is the EU. In 2015, we sold £12 billion of goods to France, Germany and other EU countries, and access to the Single Market is critical to that success.
Global giants such as Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) and JCB use their manufacturing plants here to supply the EU, and their supply chains provide tens of thousands of jobs across the region, and JLR’s sales to the EU in 2016 were up 24%.
Investment is key, and funding from the EU has been crucial by helping make up the shortfall in funds from central government.
If Mrs May’s obsession with so-called ‘hard Brexit’ is not stopped, these companies and the SMEs who rely on their business will have no choice but to shift production overseas, and the result will be economic catastrophe in terms of lost jobs and lost commercial opportunities.
The West Midlands has enjoyed six successive years of export growth, according to the latest data, but losing access to the Single Market would not only end that growth, but throw in into reverse.
The region’s economy would also suffer a body blow by losing access to skilled EU workers, which manufacturers and other employers rely on to fill many high-skilled jobs, because we no longer have the talent pool in this country to meet the ever-growing demand.
There is ample evidence to show that Britain’s membership of the EU has been good for the West Midlands, but Mrs May’s ‘hard Brexit’ strategy put this all at risk.
UKIP’s Pete Durnell was beaten to reacting on Twitter by his former leader, Nigel Farage:
I can hardly believe that the PM is now using the phrases and words that I’ve been mocked for using for years. Real progress.
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) January 17, 2017
Re-tweeting UKIP’s leader in the European Parliament later in the afternoon, Mr Durnell added:
Talking the talk, but will she walk the walk. Always judge politicians by their actions not their words. “Migration in 10s of 1000s by 2015”
Green candidate Councillor James Burn pointed to his disappointment with the PM’s approach on the Single Market:
Leaving the single market will have a huge impact on businesses in the West Midlands – small and large. It shows that the Tories can no longer claim to be the party of business. And surveys have shown that given a straight choice – the public would prefer to stay in the single market over capping immigration.
The Tories’ new low tax economic model for the rich, are a slap in the face to the many people who voted to Leave because they feel left behind by our failed economic system.
Many people voted to leave, including in my ward of Chelmsley Wood, but they certainly weren’t all voting for a hard-right Tory plan that will – yet again – make the very rich even richer, and leave the rest of us even further behind.
The Conservative and Labour candidates have noticeably dialled down their pro-European credentials in recent weeks. Perhaps understandably, Andy Street has not contested the fact he voted for Remain but has adopted a pragmatic approach to the business of Brexit in interviews. He told Radio 5 Live’s Emma Barnett just before Christmas (from 1’38”):
I did vote to Remain, but in a sense that is now irrelevant….that’s the historical conversation…who did what in June.
The conversation now is what are we going to do now to make a success of Brexit for the West Midlands.
He then went on to make three positive points for Brexit around trade and currency; the clearer need post Brexit for infrastructure investment outside of London and designing a new economy for an open, outwardly trading Britain. He said he wanted access to the single market, including a possible transitional deal.
The position of Siôn Simon, who still spends three days in Brussels as a West Midlands MEP each week, is even more interesting. As noted on these pages, he has adopted the language of the Leave campaign in his bid to become Mayor of the region.
Will the voting record, position and language of candidates around Europe have an impact on the voters? Who knows, but it’s likely the UKIP and Lib Dem candidates in particular will be hoping so.
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