Businesses should seize the opportunity to shape Brexit's outcome

It's easy to steer clear of politics but business leaders should make the most of the current upheaval.

by Tim Snowball
Last Updated: 21 Mar 2017

With the Article 50 bill now passed by parliament, and Nicola Sturgeon remaining defiant in her intention to hold a second referendum on Scottish Independence, British business leaders are bracing themselves for months, if not years, of uncertainty and political upheaval.

There’s no escaping it, the worlds of politics and business are intrinsically intertwined, and with so much change on the cards, any responsible business leader will now be taking action to assess various possible outcomes, and considering how best to engage with the political processes that will shape them.

Historically, many businesses, particularly smaller and medium sized ones, have been content to take a ‘wait and see’ approach to political change. It has seemed easier, or perhaps more realistic, to adjust commercial strategies to adapt to major political occurrences.

But the enormity of the potential changes involved with Brexit, and any further move for Scottish independence, are now so great, that a more proactive approach to public affairs is strongly advisable.

When it comes to Brexit the repercussions of the deal that Theresa May ultimately strikes with the EU will matter to every business sector in the UK. For the first time in decades the UK parliament will have the autonomy to set its own rules on a raft of issues. From VAT, to working regulations, to agricultural and industrial policy, nothing is off the table.

What we know already is that there will be multiple parliamentary bills dealing with complex policy areas that must be passed before we leave the EU. The clock is already ticking and once these bills are passed it will be much more difficult to influence them.

Political uncertainty may traditionally be the enemy of business, but it can also be a gateway to political influence for the savvy business leader. The government will be fearful of negative economic repercussions, so now, more than ever, politicians are looking for ways to support British industry, boost the economy, and are looking to safeguard employment. With a host of new issues before them, they are also looking for way-markers to guide their own emerging thinking about 'what next'.

In a democracy, it is perfectly legitimate for businesses to engage with and seek to influence political decision making. Businesses create employment, drive the economy and contribute to our society in many other ways. Your success is a vital political concern, and your perspective will therefore be of natural interest to political decision makers. In reality however, the onus usually falls to business leaders to take the initiative and to begin these conversations.

With the Brexit process now underway, there is a unique opportunity to engage with MPs, to campaign to promote your interests, and to contribute and effect wide ranging policy change.
Leaving my own career in politics for consultancy, I was surprised to discover just how daunted many business leaders feel when it comes to initiating political interaction, and that this sometimes applies for titans of industry as well as those running smaller enterprises. It was immediately clear that for many in the commercial world, negotiating the power orientated world of Westminster can feel like going to sea without a navigator.

It’s true, as an individual, early attempts at personal engagement with key influencers can be a source of frustration. Status in the commercial world does not necessarily transfer to politics. Unguided engagements can be demoralising, disempowering or shallow. Disappointment can lead some to give up at the first hurdle.

Taking a proactive and strategic approach is essential, both to secure protection from potential risks and to promote your own interests. If your priorities and concerns aren’t being heard by the people who will be leading and scrutinising the exit negotiations and drawing up the new rules then don’t expect decisions to go your way.

But if you want to influence legislation you need to be prepared for a sustained campaign to build government or parliamentary support for practical proposals. A one-off press stunt might make headlines, but it won’t necessarily have a long-term impact.

The crux of achieving the cut through you want revolves around strong messaging, developing relationships and steadily growing your influence. Establish realistic goals and use your resources and relationships to catalyse your progress.

Politics is predictable only in its unpredictability. But by creating and evolving your strategy, staying ahead of the political agenda and remaining vigilant, businesses can take this moment to have a significant say on the future of the United Kingdom. And take it they should.

Tim Snowball is head of public affairs at PHA Media, and was previously political secretary to Nick Clegg and director of party communications for the Liberal Democrats

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