Andrew Vine: Hard Brexit fear drives bosses to arms of Jeremy Corbyn

THE boss of a Yorkshire engineering company whom I know well started to really worry about Brexit as soon as he heard some of the more over-confident predictions of how it would all turn out.

Theresa May delivered her Brexit strategy last Friday
Theresa May delivered her Brexit strategy last Friday

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson saying that the deal would amount to “have cake and eat it” bothered him. So did the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox’s breezy assertion that a deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”.

That’s because this is a company which does a lot of business in the EU and, after a lifetime in industry, its boss knows two things for certain.

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One is that is worthwhile deals are never easy to strike, especially in other countries. The other is that compromise is everything, and braying about how the other side in any negotiation is bound to react usually ends badly.

That’s why he’s growing increasingly concerned about how Brexit will end for his company and employees. And he’s not alone. Among Yorkshire’s business community, many share his unease.

At the heart of their concerns is a feeling that Brexit has become too much about political posturing and too little about the practicalities of ensuring that companies stay in business and keep their employees in work.

This the real issue for company directors in our region and the people who depend on them for a wage every month.

Not dogma. Not infighting within the Government. Not a rarified ideological battle between the competing claims of Remainers and Brexiteers, but the day-to-day realities of continuing to do business with other European countries.

The prospect of tariffs being imposed on the goods companies export to the EU is a particular headache, and the stubborn insistence of advocates of a hard Brexit that it will all somehow turn out in our favour simply does nothing to allay fears.

Brexit has already made for some strange bedfellows, with those on the right of the Conservatives finding common ground with the Labour left.

And so it is with the engineering boss. He’s a natural Conservative, a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the party’s historic commitments to creating a tax and regulatory environment that encourages enterprise.

Even though he’s no fan of Labour, come the next election he just might consider voting for it, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that the party favours Britain remaining in a customs union with the EU.

Though he has serious reservations over the implications of a Corbyn premiership, on this point the party has demonstrated a sympathy for exporters which the Government appears to lack.

Alarm bells ought to be going off in Downing Street if businessmen are considering voting Labour because of the way Brexit is being handled.

Last week’s setpiece speech by Theresa May, and her interviews at the weekend, did little to reassure him. She said her plans were “practical and credible”. He thought them long on aspiration and short on detail.

Criticism from the Tory grandee Michael Heseltine that the plans amounted to no more than “phrases, generalisations and platitudes” struck a chord, and also emphasised how mired Brexit is in party infighting.

None of the speeches appear to be setting out the specifics of hammering out workable trade arrangements with the EU. That is simply of no use to a company boss with contracts to fulfil and bidding for work needed to give his firm security into the future.

The current impasse over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is a prime example. A vaguely-worded agreement over trade at the end of last year stands exposed as the fudge it was.

Warnings from two former Prime Ministers, Sir John Major and Tony Blair, that the Government is nowhere near reaching a Brexit deal that will be anything other than damaging to Britain may be coloured by their conviction that exiting the EU is a mistake, but they strike a chord with businesses.

Advocates of a hard Brexit, both within the Cabinet and on the backbenches, have the Government by the throat.

The problem is that the victims of any throttling will be the hard-working businesses of Yorkshire and beyond which are Britain’s economic backbone.

They are not being listened 
to and their concerns are 
going unheard. Little wonder that a Labour leader who 
was regarded with deep suspicion within the business community is now getting a hearing from it.

Tory infighting is worthless to the country, and destined to become a footnote in history. But the fate of businesses is fundamental, and if they are 
not looked after, history’s verdict will be damning.

The Government should recognise that the interests of business are those of the nation and tailor its approach to Brexit accordingly, before it is too late.