AS Brexit turns into a game of brinkmanship between Boris Johnson and Europe’s leaders, a whole category of people is being forgotten – the smaller independent businesses whose very survival may depend on the outcome.
Nobody much is talking about them. Worse, there is the suspicion that the people in power aren’t thinking about them. Big corporations have the clout to make their voices heard and enough in the bank to ride out whatever problems Brexit results in.
But what about the small and medium-sized companies, often family-run firms? Who in Government is listening to them?
From Boris Johnson downwards through the ranks of ministers, everybody is talking about the big picture, a vast panorama of how Britain will fare outside the EU. None, though, seem to acknowledge that the picture is made up of countless smaller elements.
Amid lofty talk of global trade deals, the little guys are being overlooked and left to fend for themselves in the face of uncertainty and risk.
This was a point made to me with considerable force by a Yorkshire road haulier, who simply does not know how his fleet of lorries is going to operate after October 31, especially if there is a no-deal Brexit. Trans-Atlantic negotiations with Donald Trump about new trade agreements feel a long way away from his yard on an industrial estate, where he is almost completely in the dark about what the future holds, or if he’ll still be in business this time next year.
Ireland is one of his regular runs, and he sees problems ahead crossing from north to south. His lorries sometimes have to reach Europe through the Channel ports rather than Hull, and the prospect of them being stuck for hours gives him nightmares.
He has little clue how anything is going to work in practical terms and simply can’t plan, let alone budget, for any additional costs that may crop up.
Nor can he answer questions from his drivers or regular customers. The Road Haulage Association, of which he is a member, is doing its best to help but has expressed its own frustration over an absence of information from the Government.
There isn’t a great deal of money in the bank, and his margins are tight. If there is prolonged disruption and business falls off, he and his staff will be in trouble. He’s a small cog in the vast machine that gets food onto the supermarket shelves and supplies to factories. And if the small cogs cease to work, then the whole mechanism misfires.
He doesn’t feel anyone in Government understands the practicalities of running a business like his or the many other independent firms wondering what lies ahead.
The political and ideological battles have consumed all attention, as if they are ends in themselves instead of having real – and possibly devastating – consequences for a legion of small business.
Emergency funds set aside by the Government to help firms in difficulties won’t trickle down as far as him.
If a foreign-owned motor manufacturer threatens to up sticks and put thousands out of work, Ministers will do anything to persuade them otherwise. But they simply won’t notice a small firm going to the wall – at least, not until others join it and the jobs lost start adding up to significant numbers.
There has to be much more attention paid to these smaller companies, which although they are taken for granted by ministers and advisors plotting how to outfox Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, are at the heart of the communities where they are based.
Look at any sector of the economy, whether it be manufacturing, agriculture or services, and one of the things that characterises the way Britain works now is apparent – the number of feisty independents on which so much depends.
Yet amid the debate and dogma surrounding Brexit, the potential vulnerability of each of these companies is being overlooked. Hundreds, even thousands, of individual failures could result in widespread economic problems – plus the human cost of job losses.
Worryingly for these firms, there is no sign their welfare is going to get much attention over the coming weeks as the focus will be on political warfare.
Jeremy Corbyn meets other opposition parties today to try to form a coalition pressing to prevent a no-deal Brexit, and when Parliament returns next week it is to the likely prospect of a no-confidence motion in the Government.
Neither that, nor the possibility of a general election, is of any use whatsoever to the haulier or countless other business owners who have little clue about the future – electioneering would only result in more paralysis. There have been many failures of politics in the Brexit saga so far, but if it condemns hard-working independent companies to oblivion, that will be the most grievous of all.