For all the government’s attempt at wooing European politicians and dignitaries over the past six weeks, its engagement with UK businesses has fallen flat. European ministers, presidents and chancellors have been subject to a barrage of direct diplomacy since the prime minister’s Florence speech in September, as Theresa May and her deputies seek to kick-start the flailing Brexit talks.
But UK plc has felt somewhat left out. Feedback from business advisory councils has been tepid and the morning newsletters are awash with comments from business leaders eager to express their displeasure.
In that context the CBI’s annual conference on Monday jarred with the publication of the Trade Bill the day after. While Liam Fox’s Department for International Trade talks up the opportunities businesses will reap from Britain’s post-Brexit trade policy, the day before, at the CBI’s yearly forum, corporate heavyweights were queueing up to pillory what they see as ministers’ lax attempts to reassure them.
Speak to many company founders and chief execs, in the financial services, tech, or manufacturing sectors and you will hear a similar response – the government does not yet get “it”.
“It” is the fact that that businesses of all sizes will need time to prepare for the new way-of-things before that comes about. The call from the banking sector in particular has been for a transitional agreement to be reached this year, if it is to be of any value. With only one round of talks scheduled – this week – before the crucial European Council summit in December that looks a reach.
The prime minister’s enduring choice of the phrase “implementation” over “transitional” period is symptomatic of the confusion here. She views it as a finite amount of time for businesses to put into practice our new relationship with the EU, whatever that turns out to be. The private sector, and indeed the EU, rather see it as a set period where our existing relationship is emulated as much as possible, in order to smooth the pathway to new regulation, tariffs and arbitration bodies in the future.
The belief, whether explicitly acknowledged by the government or not, that negotiating our new relationship with our European neighbours comes before the way we implement that leads to legislative excursions like the Trade Bill.
The bill, one of nine pieces of key Brexit legislation that needs to be passed before spring 2019, proposes a number of measures to roll over trade deals Britain is currently a signatory to through the EU, ensure UK access to the Agreement on Government Procurement, which offers public contract opportunities, and set up a Trade Remedies Authority to combat unfair trading practices post-Brexit.
The government appears to be putting the cart before the horse if it thinks it can execute such an ambitious new trade policy without bringing UK plc with them. If Britain is to take its place as the independent trading nation of leavers’ dreams, it can’t be built on rhetoric alone, there must be more substance. And then we’ll see the pragmatism for which British businesses are renowned.