It doesn't really matter if Unilever leaves London

Theresa May's desire to keep Unilever in the UK is based on politics rather than economics.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 22 Feb 2018

Rotterdam or London? That is the question on everyone’s lips and whether she loves it or hates it, Theresa May is in a spot of Bovril over Unilever’s ongoing review over where to headquarter its business (OK, OK, I’ll stop with the product puns now).

In the climate of Brexit, hard borders and Boris boasting, it’s hard to remember that Unilever's decision actually has very little to do with Britain's decision to leave the EU. Rehashing the current dual-legal structure has more to do with Kraft's botched takeover last year, and is motivated by a desire to simplify things like mergers and acquisitions.

A political issue

Paul Polman, Unilever's Dutch chief executive, has already spoken of his desire to prevent the restructure becoming politicised - even postponing the original decision at the end of last year - but at times like this, that is a hard ask.

If it was to choose Rotterdam, it would be a body blow to the Prime Minister who is keen to maintain London’s position as a European leading pool of business and financial talent despite the fears that Brexit will cause more companies to move operations abroad.

Of course, it's pretty unliikely that Unilever will completely close its London operations and moving the majority of its top-end talent away from the UK.

Likewise a company can legally be listed in a country where it isn’t headquartered, so it's not as though any move will alter British ownership of the company, such as it is.

Nevertheless, the refocus to the Netherlands would be a symbolic defeat and May knows this. 

All the bother might be over nothing, if Unilever doesn't ditch the UK, but ultimately it's May rather than the UK that has the most to lose.

Image Credits: Aerovista Luchtfotografie / Shutterstock.com

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