The British Chambers of Commerce, representing 75,000 businesses with five million employees, attacks the country’s political leaders over Brexit on Sunday, accusing them of “division and disorganisation” that is putting the economy at serious risk.
It says businesses are so dismayed at the lack of leadership and unclear messages that many are considering contingency plans and preparing for lower levels of investment. The broadside, delivered by the director general Adam Marshall, appears to be aimed primarily at Theresa May’s government, which he says must urgently announce a clear plan for a post-Brexit transitional period in which there would be little change to trading arrangements with the EU so that companies can plan ahead. But he says the lack of clarity and absence of leadership is a problem “across Westminster”, suggesting Labour and other opposition parties, as well as the Whitehall machine, are also failing to rise to the challenge of Brexit.
“Some very big decisions lie ahead,” Marshall told the Observer. “Getting the twin challenges of Brexit and the economic fundamentals right will require leadership, consistency and clarity – after a year in which business has been dismayed by what it sees as division and disorganisation across Westminster.”
He adds: “Businesses have been very patient in waiting for clarity on Brexit in the 18 months since the referendum. That patience is now wearing thin. Businesses want answers, they want clarity and they want results.”
His comments reflect a deep frustration not only over the lack of a Brexit strategy but a broader sense within the business community that political leaders are failing to think ahead to how the UK economy can best function and play to its strengths outside the EU. The impression of turmoil and confusion deepened on Friday, when the Labour peer Lord Adonis resigned as May’s infrastructure tsar in protest at her handling of Brexit, which he described as “a dangerous populist and nationalist spasm worthy of Donald Trump”.
Before Christmas the prime minister achieved a breakthrough when the EU agreed sufficient progress had been made to allow negotiations to move on to future trade relations early in the new year. But no sooner had she done so than she suffered a first serious Brexit defeat in the Commons, when Tory rebels voted with opposition parties to demand a meaningful vote on the final deal. As minds focused on the next crucial stages of talks, and the approach of a vote as early as next October, internal arguments have broken out afresh in Conservative and Labour ranks over how to move forward.
Michael Heseltine, the pro-EU Tory peer and former deputy prime minister, caused ructions last week by suggesting that a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn could be less damaging than Brexit driven through by his own party.
Meanwhile, the Labour leader is facing calls from his own party to take a stronger anti-Brexit line. A growing number of MPs, councillors and activists want the party to commit to staying in the single market and customs union at the very least, with some saying he should hold open the option of campaigning at a future election to stay in the EU to safeguard jobs.
The Wirral MP Alison McGovern argues in the Observer today that Labour must fight to maintain as close a relationship as possible with the EU. Chuka Umunna, the former shadow business secretary, said: “Constant fudge compromises our ability to effectively take on the Tories on this – the biggest issue of our generation – which is why, as a minimum, we should be arguing for the UK to stay part of the single market and the customs union permanently.”
Lord Malloch-Brown, a former diplomat and Labour Foreign Office minister under Gordon Brown, who is heavily involved in a new organisation, Best for Britain, which seeks to mobilise civil society against leaving the EU, argued that Labour risked missing its chance of power if it continued hedging its bets on Brexit. He said Corbyn did well in June’s general election because his policy on leaving the EU was vague enough to attract a substantial number of anti-Brexit Tory voters and very large numbers of pro-EU, internationalist-minded young voters. But they would desert him if they thought he supported Brexit.
“Both those groups are vulnerable groups because the Tory vote that came over is not going to stay if it concludes that Labour is really a party of Brexit,” he said. “And the young vote is certainly not going to stay if it concludes that what it voted for last time was a form of socialism in one country rather than a socialism within Europe. If Labour loses those ‘stay’ votes it is likely to remain in permanent opposition or stay short of a majority.”
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