After whispered rumours and much media speculation, Boris Johnson has done what David Cameron dreaded and backed Britain leaving the EU. But while he's lost a Conservative heavyweight and convincing campaigner in the London mayor, Cameron has at least still got many of the nation's biggest firms on side.
Despite the Prime Minister's hardball approach, the EU concessions have been dismissed by many as watered down tokens that haven’t addressed the big concerns of the nation's citizens and businesses. But around half of FTSE 100 bosses are reportedly lining up to sign a letter backing Cameron as he battles some of his closest Cabinet ministers to keep the country in the EU.
The letter is being coordinated by 10 Downing Street, naturally, and is expected to be released tomorrow, but the campaign has rallied chairmen and chief execs from the likes of Vodafone, easyJet, Barclays, Shell, BT and GlaxoSmithKline.
Whether this will have the desired effect on uncertain members of the public remains to be seen – on the one hand, they may well look to the bosses of the UK’s biggest firms for guidance on what’s good for the economy. On the other, big businesses aren't always seen as having the public's interests at heart.
There's a general sentiment in the polls that the UK's businesses across a range of sectors are in favour of staying in the EU. Another from today, by manufacturers' association EEF, found that 61% of its members were in favour of staying in, while just 5% supported a Brexit. Of course, while a plethora of polls may have some impact on the undecided, they've lost some gravitas since the general election ones went so awry. Additionally, all the general public will see from polls are abstract figures. Business leaders signing a letter could provide a more personal touch that a faceless poll can't.
There is difficulty for some companies – notably consumer-facing ones, over quite how to position themselves when it comes to a Brexit. Britain's EU membership is a political hot potato, and many will not want to upset their customers by speaking out against leaving.
If the Brexit battle heats up to the level of the Scottish referendum, they may even fear being the targets of threats or boycotts. Business leaders were said to have been threatened with ‘retribution’ by the SNP should they go ahead in speaking against Scottish independence. Standard Life knows all too well the difficulty of taking a vocal stand early on and has been notably more subdued when it comes to a Brexit.
Another concern for the UK's firms is the ripple effect polls are having, causing uncertainty in financial markets. Sterling fell sharply in overnight trading after Johnson’s announcement. The pound was trading 1.3% lower against the dollar at $1.421. And that’s just the short-term wobble as indecision grows. Should the UK actually vote to leave the EU, we could well see hesitancy weighing heavily on investment and spending power weakened as the nation expects a rise in import costs.
Some 50 signatures may send a message it’s not just the big City banks favouring staying in the EU – and in that sense should be more convincing to those umming and ahhhing over the decision. But for the foreseeable future, the overriding feeling is going to be crippling uncertainty and that’s going to be a big battle for British businesses.