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Expert View

Business must start campaigning on Brexit

by Denis MacShane | 07.07.2017

It used to be said that the TUC went onto the streets and the CBI went into ministers’ offices. Both organisations chose their respective ways of campaigning for what they wanted.

Today, the CBI is back meeting with ministers – or at least seeing David Davis and Greg Clark at Chevening, the handsome Jacobean residence in Kent which was once the official country home of the foreign secretary but which Boris Johnson now has to share with his fellow Brexit obsessives Davis and Liam Fox.

The CBI and other business groups are emoting about leaving the single market and customs union, but their carefully balanced speeches and press releases do not have the same impact as the anti-European tirades of Wetherspoons boss Tim Martin or Sir James Dyson of vacuum cleaner and hand dryer fame.

The big question is this: when do major firms start spending real money on explaining to the nation that a hard Brexit would be a disaster? If Brexiters are still hoping to have their free trade cake and eat it outside the single market and customs union, they haven’t been listening to Michel Barnier. British politicians, the chief EU negotiator said on Thursday, hadn’t fully understood that frictionless trade would be impossible in those circumstances.

Business by nature is pro-Tory. The government controls half of GDP and awards peerages and knighthoods which business bosses crave more than anything.

But today it is the Labour Party which is the main advocate of leaving the single market. Few doubt that as long as Jeremy Corbyn and his praetorian guard are in charge, Labour will oppose any recasting of Brexit in a way that is friendly to inward investment, the City and its $120 trillion euro trading and clearing business; to SMEs that depend on skilled EU workers; and to the road haulage and transport industries, which are terrified of leaving the customs union.

The paradox is that business can stay true to its pro-Conservative vocation by speaking truth to power and explaining to Labour’s controlling elites how the obsession with leaving the single market will do immense damage to British jobs, exports and inward investment.

It is true that business will have to send the same message to Theresa May’s ministers, who are closer to UKIP ideology on Brexit than to middle-of-the-road Conservatism. There are 318 Tory MPs and they are not about to collapse into an early election, especially with opinion polls currently looking so good for Labour. Only about 60 of them are hardline Daily Mail-Telegraph UKIP fellow travellers, even if they get most outings on Question Time and the Today programme.

Compared to the sums they lavish on away-days or summer parties, big UK firms could find small change to support campaigns to alert public opinion to the dangers of leaving the single market and customs union. These campaigns could include constituency audits to ram home to Tory MPs and councillors the damage that would be done to local economies and small companies by a hard Brexit of the sort espoused by Boris Johnson, Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove.

It is patient, unglamorous, local campaigning, not sitting down to fine food and wine in Chevening, that will wean all but the hardest of hardline Brexit ministers off their obsession with representing UKIP ideology in the cabinet.

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Edited by Alan Wheatley

2 Responses to “Business must start campaigning on Brexit”

  • For me the big question is this: when do major firms stop spending real money on financing a Conservative party set on a disastrous hard Brexit?

    -A.