‘I’m afraid I think he’s making it up,’ was the retort of Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin on Monday’s Today programme to the claim by Ralf Speth, boss of Jaguar Land Rover, that a bad Brexit deal could put tens of thousands of jobs at risk in JLR and its suppliers, and cost his company £1.2 billion a year. In the same speech last week, Speth pointed out that the lack of any sort of Brexit clarity means he has no idea whether his UK factories will be able to operate on 30 March next year — or whether even the ‘tiny’ border delays Jenkin concedes are likely will cripple the just-in-time systems on which the likes of JLR and the BMW Mini factory at Cowley depend. If just one truckload of Spanish-made headlights is stuck at the docks, the line could come to a halt: it’s as simple as that.
‘Scaremongering,’ said Jenkin, going on to expatiate about the smoothness of ‘drive-through borders’ elsewhere. To which Speth responded, later on Monday, by putting 1,000 workers at his Castle Brom-wich factory on a three-day week until Christmas. In doing so, he spoke of broader ‘headwinds’ rather than Brexit specifics: this comes at a time when sales of diesel cars have slumped (partly because governments won’t acknowledge the merits of new ‘clean diesel’) and the industry is grappling with the EU’s ‘real-world’ emissions and fuel consumption tests, which have disrupted production and (because higher emission readings mean higher tax charges) knocked a huge hole in the company car market.
The point is this: the £80 billion, 800,000-worker UK automotive sector is already in a fragile state, to which Brexit is adding paralysing uncertainty. It’s an industry that has developed since the 1980s as the embodiment of globalisation and the flagship of Europe’s single market — and it has no clue how much change it is about to have to cope with. It can adapt to WTO tariffs and a weaker pound if it has to, but not to ‘border drag’ that throws factories into chaos, or to arguments about whether its paints and plastics continue to meet other countries’ safety rules, or to the loss of thousands of highly skilled engineers who can no longer obtain work visas. Though some manufacturers (notably Nissan) have committed to new models in UK factories since the referendum, others including JLR have hedged their bets and moved production abroad. Levels of capital investment are bound to fall, and some factories (possibly starting with Ford’s engine plants) are bound to close. It’s not scaremongering, and I’m afraid no one is making it up.
I mean no disrespect to the Right Reverend Sarah Mullally, who was recently installed as the 133rd Bishop of London, when I say that on the whole I prefer bishops to be bearded and basso profundo. I also think they should operate a little way above the day-to-day world — as did her predecessor Richard Chartres, or the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, whose sermon on the only occasion I heard him preach in the flesh was so arcane that I found myself scribbling its most mystic phrases on the service sheet. But Williams’s successor Justin Welby, famous for having been an oil company executive before he found God, has never struck me that way at all: ever ready to confront economic and societal issues, he speaks in technocrat’s prose rather than high priest’s poetry. And I can’t help wondering whether his latest interventions are taking that tendency too far.
I didn’t disagree with the passage of his speech to the TUC last week which blasted the likes of Amazon for ‘aggressive tax management’; this column shares the view that ‘if you earn money from a community, you should pay your share of tax to that community’. On the other hand, his description of the gig economy — which for all its faults has delivered new levels of efficiency and choice within a free labour market — as ‘the reincarnation of an ancient evil’ really was a bit strong. So was his Corbynist notion that the rich must be ‘sent empty away’ before the hungry can be filled with good things. Now the Archbishop is busy convening investors to back a not-for-profit bid to buy the £400 million loan book of the collapsed payday lender Wonga, the evils of which he has long proclaimed.
I’m not saying Welby’s instincts are inappropriate, or that he should not give them an occasional blast from the pulpit. But I worry that presenting himself as the prelate who reads balance sheets for breakfast before picking fights with the raw forces of capitalism is a major distraction from his real job of reinvigorating the Church of England in decline: it risks tarnishing the holy aura that’s essential to that task.
A job for the Bodyguard
This time last year I advised Sports Direct chairman Keith Hellawell to ‘march off the corporate platform while his dignity is intact’. But the former chief constable of West Yorkshire ignored me and muddled on, giving the perpetual impression of a man trying to exude authority while sitting on the pointy end of his own truncheon and wondering what on earth his employer, Sports Direct’s majority owner Mike Ashley, might say or do next.
Last week — in anticipation of renewed calls for his departure at the annual general meeting — the 76-year-old Hellawell finally agreed to step down, leaving Ashley in the midst of a tussle over the future of Debenhams stores, which he may or may not be eyeing as another bargain-basement takeover to merge with his recent purchase, House of Fraser. The friendless billionaire has a phobia about being stabbed in the back by the media and his own minority shareholders, and might feel reassured if the vacant chair beside him were to be filled by another firm-jawed former officer. In which case perhaps he should offer it to Sergeant David Budd of Bodyguard; being a fictional character is surely no disqualification when Ashley himself is a living caricature of a maverick tycoon.