Patrick O’Flynn Patrick O’Flynn

How big business failed in its plot to stop Brexit

A little over a year ago, at the nadir of the May administration’s excruciating bungling of Brexit, the Daily Telegraph landed a dynamite exclusive.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, and Business Secretary Greg Clark had hosted a confidential conference call for corporate bosses in which they said the threat of a no-deal Brexit was effectively off the table. And the Telegraph had obtained a tape recording of the whole thing.

Behind the backs of the British people, the well-upholstered felines of big business were being told that a huge Commons defeat for May’s withdrawal agreement (it had just lost by 230 votes) did not mean that Brexit would go ahead on WTO terms at the end of March.

Instead, it would simply not happen unless or until a withdrawal agreement had been approved that elevated their blessed supply chains and demands for ongoing frictionless trade above the democratic imperative.

Hammond told the bosses that Article 50 – the mechanism by which we were leaving the EU – could be rescinded. Represented on the call were more than 300 big businesses, including the bosses of Tesco, BP, Siemens and Scottish Power.

Hammond even appeared to support a rebel backbench bill being pushed by the likes of Nick Boles, Sir Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn designed to outlaw a no-deal departure.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, who was also in on the call, at one point interjected to signal his discomfort at the direction of the conversation, saying it was important that the threat of no-deal was at least formally still in existence as otherwise the UK’s negotiating hand would be further weakened. John Allan, the Tesco chairman and CBI President, then chipped in to criticise Barclay for that intervention.

The conference call was arranged after 170 business leaders had signed a letter to the Times demanding a second referendum with a view to calling Brexit off.

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