Wetherspoons' Brexit-loving boss wants to have his pint and drink it

EDITOR'S BLOG: Tim Martin knows a lot more about running pubs than about international relations.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 03 Nov 2016

I’m as fond of Tim Martin of Wetherspoons as the next biz scribbler. I don’t frequent his pubs but, with his carrier bag filled with board papers, dodgy mullet and shoot-from-the-hip style, he’s a welcome change to the average FTSE 250 boss. He rarely fails to give a great quote and adds to the gaiety of life.

However on the whole subject of Brexit he really is starting to sound as if he has been spending too long propping up one of his own bars and listening to the deathly wisdom of those who supp from their engraved tankards, draw intermittently on a slim Panatella and ‘have a lot of time for' Farage.

Yesterday he was complaining bitterly about EU leaders ‘bullying’ British businesses in the aftermath of June’s vote. He actually accused Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the Commission, of placing an ‘unfair burden’ on his supply chain and actively encouraging European suppliers to cut up rough with British companies. (After a post-Brexit Summer surge, Wetherspoon’s trading figures have started to look a little wan in the last few weeks and this may have something to do with Martin's level of annoyance.)

‘Wetherspoons normally agrees on trade deals with suppliers for three to 10 years,’ he said. ‘If we, and companies like ours, are unable to agree on tariff-free transactions, it will inevitably result in a loss of business for European companies which have done nothing to deserve this outcome.

‘Indeed, the ultimate sanction will be in the hands of UK consumers, should they take offence at the hectoring and bullying approach of Juncker and co.’

And, if he was spluttering into his pint of Abbot Ale yesterday, the news that the High Court is now saying Article 50 needs to be put before parliament is unlikely to have mollified him. ‘Taking back control’ can have many meanings, as Theresa May is now discovering.

Martin wants his pint and he wants to be able to drink it, too. If he thought a vote to leave was going to lead to a smooth and rapid transition towards tariff-free terms of trade because we import so much stuff from the Germans he must be living in a fantasy. This is why he’s a publican not a politician. Few claimed - on either side of the argument - that this whole business would be a breeze because nobody gave much thought to what the nitty gritty would actually entail.

Many Brexiters acknowledged things would be pretty bumpy and not without damage to our economy in the short and maybe even medium term. But we’d be back on the path of independent virtue once it was all fixed and agreed. (And it is still very, very short term. The fact that our economic numbers have not fallen off a cliff since June says little. We’re in the Phoney War phase at the moment. The real munitions have yet to start flying through the air. The effects of our plunging currency will start to be felt in some nasty inflation figures next year.)

When real things actually happen, they take quite an alarming turn. Take Nissan, for example. The clandestine deal appears to have been widely welcomed as a good thing. Seeing sense and all that. But there is no way that - whatever they may be - the incentives the government has offered Nissan to stay in Sunderland and produce new models can be repeated willy nilly. It would bankrupt us if all businesses from Big Pharma to the farmers came after the same sweeteners.

Two nights ago on Newsnight, Kenichi Ohmae who was involved in bringing Nissan to the North East during the Thatcher era said Nissan got what it wanted because it was ‘a very special case.’ But everyone thinks they are a very special case. BMW will believe strongly that in saving Mini-making jobs in Cowley it is a very special case.

But what Ohmae remarked in addition was alarming. In terms of his advice to companies, he said: 'We don't have enough information to make a prudent judgement. Therefore with the final picture of the UK uncertain, I will advise them to hold until the course is clear and until the conditions of Brexit are worked out - not only by what the UK government says, but what the European Union says. Until that final shape of the UK is clear, we will have to hold the investment decisions.’

Uncertainty. The word comes up again and again. Tim Martin wants the certainty of trade deals with his suppliers that will last from three to 10 years. Because he’s certain, he cannot understand why everyone else cannot be, as well. But who can offer certainty at the moment, when we’re all feeling our way through the dark? The odd leak one hears from Whitehall where civil servants labour for 11 hour days on the substance of Brexit is that they don’t have the foggiest what they are really supposed to be doing.

So, it’s one jittery reaction after another to the scraps that the markets are tossed which they feel might indicate the general direction of travel. Just look at the effects of the Mark Carney saga at the weekend. The fact that Carney - the one person with a steady head in those days after June 23 who brought some calm and reassurance - confirmed he will stay on for an extra year and see us through the two year exit period should have helped the pound and given people a bit of confidence. Except it didn’t. After a small rebound in sterling’s value, things fizzled. God knows what the results would have been if he’d told the Brexit attack dogs who have targeted him that he’d had enough and was heading for the Air Canada boarding ramp PDQ.

The central problem is now that politics, and almost politics alone, drives what happens to the pound since it has been signalled back in October that we are headed for a hard Brexit. Tim Martin might be convinced that we can go it alone in the piratical spirit of Sir Francis Drake - plundering what we can here and there - but there’s no getting away from the fact that the markets are still convinced that we’ve shot ourselves not just in the foot but also the heart by voting as we did. How does he think we should deal with Moody’s, who have rubbed another large pinch of salt into our wounds yesterday by confirming that if we lose core access to the Single Market our credit rating will be downgraded still further?

Martin may still be convinced he’s right but the numbers of outsiders - who will determine our fate in this joined up, globalised world - who disagree is in the majority.

It says a lot that the only thing markets have found that unnerves them more than Brexit currently is the real possibility of The Donald ending up in The White House. We’ll all need a drink or two - in a ‘Spoons or elsewhere - if that comes to pass.

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