Greg Wright: Give business clarity, Mrs May, and not a Brexit muddle

Theresa May's Brexit vision remains blurred - to the apparent consternation of business leaders.
Theresa May's Brexit vision remains blurred - to the apparent consternation of business leaders.
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NOTHING chills the bones of corporate ambition quite like uncertainty. Some turmoil, such as disruption caused by war or natural disasters, cannot be avoided.

But when it comes to Brexit, Theresa May must spell out the underlying principles that will shape her negotiating strategy immediately.

She can make no promises about the outcome of these talks, but the electorate has a right to know what guiding star she will be following when she enters the negotiating chamber.

This lack of clarity is diminishing her Government’s authority six months after she became Prime Minister on the back of her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ promise to the Tory party before the leadership contest ended prematurely as a result of Eurosceptic contenders falling by the wayside.

Mrs May inherited a shambles from her predecessor, David Cameron, and an economy that was still growing, despite the best efforts of Government to sabotage it.

Mr Cameron’s failure to devise a Brexit strategy casts a cloud over his reputation – indeed his successor said on Sky News last weekend that there was no plan if Britain did, in fact, vote to leave the European Union.

But Mrs May has had plenty of time to think long and hard about what she wants from Brexit, and how British interests can be best served once we leave the EU. Her reluctance to provide some illumination of her inner thoughts on this subject is causing grave concern in the business community.

They shouldn’t have to wait for a “major” speech or the resignation of an EU ambassador to find out what the Government believes the post-Brexit world should look like.

We’ve been told that there will be no running commentary on Brexit, but, that is precisely what we have been getting, from Cabinet Ministers who do not always seem to sing from the same hymn sheet. The ensuing narrative reads like a badly scripted soap opera.

For example, in December, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said that businesses, regulators and “thoughtful” politicians on both sides of the Channel recognised that a transition deal would be “generally helpful” to avoid the shock of a sudden switch to new arrangements after Brexit.

But David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, told MPs on the Commons Exiting the EU Committee that voters wanted Brexit delivered “properly and soon”. So what is the Government’s position?

How can business leaders plan for the post-Brexit world when our political leaders don’t seem to have a vision of what it should look like? Mrs May must have had a clear view of her economic priorities when she entered Number 10. It’s impossible to excuse the PM’s reticence.

Yorkshire businessmen and women who have ties to the EU deserve better than this. They probably echo the thoughts of Allie Renison, the Institute of Directors’ respected – and impartial – head of Europe and trade policy, who told me there was nothing to stop the Government from setting out its over-arching priorities for Brexit.

For example, will Mrs May place the emphasis on curbing immigration – the so-called hard Brexit – over ensuring Britain keeps access to a single market? The premier hinted at this in her New Year interview before her aides suggested otherwise 24 hours later, presumably once they had read the reaction in the media.

It’s been suggested by some commentators that the UK might be able to buy access to the single market after Brexit, a move that would certainly be welcomed by many firms.

David Davis has suggested that, after the UK leaves the EU, the country could continue to make payments into the EU budget in order to ensure British exporters have access to the single market. If that is the Government’s plan, we may be in for a shock. Jonathan Faull, a former senior UK official at the European Commission, has warned that paying to access the tariff-free single market is not how the EU works.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told Czech journalists the UK was “probably” going to leave the EU Customs Union. This union allows members to trade freely among themselves and have the same customs duties for external customers and suppliers.

So will Ms May fight hard to retain access to this union when the hurly-burly of negotiating begins? Or has the Government already said adieu to the customs union, and all the benefits that come with it? The Government should tell us. Now.

And will the Government fight the corner for firms who still want a swift route to European markets after Brexit? Many companies still want to have access to the European research and innovation networks. We can’t allow these hi-tech, fast growing companies to find themselves out in the cold.

Nothing is stopping the Government from stating which parts of the EU it wishes to engage with after we have finally completed our divorce from it. The process underpinning that engagement – and the price to be paid – can be hammered out at the negotiating table.

In fairness to Theresa May, she is facing an utterly thankless task as she prepares to deliver a speech on Brexit next week. Good negotiators know that discretion is a powerful weapon. But this isn’t a corporate deal affecting a handful of shareholders. It affects the wealth of the nation and the well-being of millions of Britons.

Supporters of Brexit say that the EU referendum was all about taking back control. Taking control of what, precisely?

A country in which the Government will decide our fate without articulating the principles behind its most complex peace-time negotiation process?

Hardly. That’s why we need a Prime Minister who wears her convictions on her sleeve and provides business with the confidence to keep on investing as the Brexit negotiations begin in earnest.

Greg Wright is Deputy Business Editor of The Yorkshire Post.