Matthew Lynn

Businesses should try and shape Brexit – not fight it

Businesses should try and shape Brexit – not fight it
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Airbus will abandon the UK. The car factories will all be closed down. Trade will grind to a halt, we will run out of food and medicines, and Harry Kane will be sold to Real Madrid and made captain of Spain instead of England. Okay, I made that last one up, but all the others are among the dire warnings that big business have issued over Brexit in the last few weeks.

Project Fear III, or IV, or possibly XXVII by now, keeps coming back. Right now, it seems to have as many sequels as Jurassic World, and with plot-lines that are about as original. That, however, is a mistake, and potentially a serious one. Sure, industry has plenty of legitimate concerns about our departure from the EU. But it should be trying to shape Brexit, not just re-run a failed referendum strategy.

Every day appears to bring a fresh warning of a potential Brexit crisis. At the weekend it was Airbus, and today it was the car manufacturers turn to tell us about all the terrible stuff that is about to happen. By Thursday, it will probably be the pharma guys, and then at the weekend a couple of the big banks will tell us they are off to Frankfurt while the supermarkets warn us of empty shelves and a possible shortage of avocados. And then the whole thing can start all over again.

True, you can see what they are up to. Companies are worried about Brexit, in much the same way they are worried about all sorts of things that might or might not happen in the future. They want to apply pressure on the government to make sure their particular sector gets as good a deal as possible, even if it does end up costing the tax-payer a few billion pounds.

But in truth, they should forget it. There is no point in re-running the referendum campaign endlessly, nor is business doing itself any favours by turning itself into a wing of the die-hard Remainer movement. Most major companies didn’t want to leave the EU, and were dismayed by the result. But now that it is happening, and we are leaving in less than a year, they would be far better off financing and supporting the lobby groups that are trying to shape Brexit – not fight it.

What does business actually want to ensure over the next ten months? First, reasonable levels of immigration. The UK has become hooked on a plentiful supply of cheap labour over the last fifteen years, and it can’t change that quickly. It needs to keep that on tap, although in return it should offer to stop hiring exclusively in eastern and central Europe and train more people at home. It wants reasonable access to the Single Market, while at the same time accepting that we won’t continue with freedom of movement. And it wants a minimal level of disruption to trade, even if that means it has to accept sector-by-sector deals, and in some cases re-work supply chains. Business should be focussing on those key issues, all of which should be perfectly achievable, and move on from the endless scare-mongering. It didn’t work the first time around, and the 27


re-tread is not going to work either. All it does is distract everyone from the task of making Brexit work.