Britain has a new prime minister who’s clear: ‘Brexit means Brexit’. But what happens now? MT toddled along to the offices of PR firm Freuds this morning to take the temperature of some of the country’s top business and policy bigwigs.
There were recriminations to begin with as the panel clashed over whether the referendum result was largely due to concerns over immigration. Pro-Brexit Next boss Simon Wolfson insisted leavers were mainly motivated by dissatisfaction with the EU itself but Simon Walker, who runs the Institute of Directors, said he ‘couldn’t detach immigration and blunt prejudice from the outcome’.
Nonetheless both agreed that now was the time for businesses and all those who want Britain to remain an outward looking, pro-immigration country to club together and make their voice heard. ‘Once you know you’re leaving, suddenly the vast majority of rational Brexiteers have got everything in common with remainers,’ Wolfson said. ‘We believe in open borders, free trade, structural reform of the UK economy. There is nothing now to divide those who were on either side of that great debate.’
Maybe so, but has Westminster got the memo? Our new prime minister has a reputation for being tough on immigration and she’s appointed David Davis and Liam Fox, both staunch Leavers, to key roles (though her successor at the Home Office, Amber Rudd, backed Remain).
Now that the business of governing is almost underway again, it’s time for the new administration to figure out what the Brexit terms of engagement will be. Will Britain seek a Norway-style agreement that retains access to the single market but also permits freedom of movement? (It’s looking increasingly unlikely). Should we focus on securing trade deals with the Brics countries and the US before figuring out what the country’s new relationship with Europe will look like? ‘There is a big opportunity here,’ said Wolfson. ‘For the first time we will be able to make our own trade deals with other nations. Nations which are growing in their importance and will ultimately become more important than Europe.’
Stephanie Flanders, the former BBC economics editor and now JP Morgan's chief market strategist for Britain and Europe, painted a picture of Whitehall in disarray. ‘I spoke to a trade minister this week from a G20 country who said they had phone calls from UK officials asking if Britain could join TPP (the trans-pacific partnership), would they like to do a white commonwealth trade area, was it possible to join NAFTA? She said these people literally can’t even begin to ask about a trade deal, they have no framework for working on this.’ Britain has 60 trade negotiators compared to, for instance, Canada’s 500, Flanders added - little wonder companies have been getting phone calls from the cabinet office asking to borrow some lawyers.
Britain may be poorly prepared for Brexit but this gives businesses a chance to ensure the economy remains open. On migrant labour, on access to the single market, on which European regulations are and aren’t good for your industry and which other parts of the world you most want to do business with, it’s important to speak up. If the government lacks a rudder then businesses should provide it.
‘There is no proper plan nailed down now,’ said Poppy Mitchell-Rose, associate director at Freuds and former advisor to George Osborne. ‘This is a great opportunity for [businesses] to do that public affairs work with the Government, but also to use the airwaves and talk to business journalists and make sure that your voice is being heard. The voice of business does have a huge impact – the government is listening.’