Businesses are screaming out for certainty – which is why delaying Brexit would be so alarming

Lost amongst all the drama and excitement expressed in the coverage over the last fortnight of defections from Labour and the Conservatives to The Independent Group (TIG), has been the voice of British business. The overwhelming majority of British businesses just want the Government to get on with delivering Brexit, and finally get back some […]

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Lost amongst all the drama and excitement expressed in the coverage over the last fortnight of defections from Labour and the Conservatives to The Independent Group (TIG), has been the voice of British business.

The overwhelming majority of British businesses just want the Government to get on with delivering Brexit, and finally get back some certainty as to what rules are going to apply to them. But unless the Government is able to provide this certainty, investment decisions for this country will be held back until the picture becomes clearer. That makes all of us poorer.

For the Prime Minister to now give MPs the opportunity to frustrate our exit should cause every real business in the country real alarm. Achieving certainty, clarity and finality must be the priority.

This is why the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs is making the case for exiting the EU on WTO terms, rather than signing up to the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement with its dangerous backstop. We now have over 450 businesses who have signed up to publicly support our various campaigns against the prevailing myths about where business stands on the deal. Despite operating purely on word of mouth, we represent more businesses (from more sectors and regions) than the CBI or Number 10 have been able to generate in all their joint letters seeking to push Project Fear on the British people. This gives an indication of the level of anger and frustration amongst the business community about political dithering.

Unless the backstop is replaced, the deal won’t bring any sense of finality to Brexit. It will have the UK cascading through possible delays, possible extensions to implementation periods, possible participation in a customs union (via the backstop or otherwise) and possible reversal of the decision to leave, in its entirety, throughout the process. There will be no certainty about the direction of travel for the UK at any point ahead of the next general election in 2022, at least. That is not satisfactory for the British people or its business community.

The TIGger plan is even more troubling for business. To re-run the referendum and have a second vote now cannot be taken seriously as a suggestion for how to bring finality to the issue of our relationship with the EU. Even in the event of a Remain win (this time), there is little if any reason to believe that voters would buy that outcome as more legitimate than the result the first time round. Businesses don’t need more divisive debates. We need to move on, however hard that is for some to come to terms with at present.

The public seem to agree too. If you check out the polling when the public are asked about support for a second referendum, they have pretty consistently rejected it – it only gets supported where people aren’t sure whether that would be a referendum on Leave or Remain, or Leave or May’s Deal, or even all three. When those questions are asked instead, support for it falls away.

However, one thing the public are clear on is their desire for by-elections when MPs opt to resign from their manifesto commitments! Both Survation and YouGov ran polls last week, where a clear majority supported TIG MPs going back to their voters to see whether they agreed with their decision to defect. The polled support for this is far higher than has been achieved in any of the “People’s Vote” polls for supporting a second referendum.

The case for business certainty, and the ability to make long-term plans, would favour this too. If MPs want to walk away from their commitments – to honour the referendum and have the UK leave the EU – the people and the business community should be able to hold them accountable at the ballot box. Bizarrely, though, the TIGgers are arguing themselves that now is not the time for elections or by-elections – because of the uncertainty they think that would be thrown up by them! This while explicitly calling for a hugely divisive national plebiscite. The fact they can say this publicly without widespread ridicule shows we live in truly extraordinary times.

While all the attention last week was on the TIGgers, businesses are at least reassured to see other Members of Parliament, including one-time die-hard Remainers, reconciling with where we are, being prepared to do the hard work and make compromise across their party, including with those with whom they previously openly strongly disagreed. Sensible-minded business people are relieved to see MPs like Nicky Morgan embrace pragmatism, and genuinely act in the national interest. These MPs deserve our vocal support. They have accepted the result and are now seeking genuine, grown-up solutions alongside their eurosceptic colleagues. That is how good outcomes are achieved in the greater interests of the country, not through breakaway-party ego-trips.

The reality is that the typical British business is not represented by the CBI or the variety of pro-EU talking-heads constantly popping up on our TV screens. These are groups with a vested interest in remaining bound to Brussels rules, because it works in their favour. Multinationals spend millions upon millions lobbying that system to rig the rules so they can keep out competitors. Fortunes are spent on professional lobbying each year to prevent disruptive start-ups and SMEs from encroaching on established industry groupings, at the expense of the consumer. The policy-making machine in Brussels has been totally captured by these groups, with no real say or control for voters, or indeed British business. Want an example? There are two and a half times as many financial services lobbyists in Brussels alone as there are MEPs.

Only one in twenty UK businesses even trades with the EU – the idea that all business people want to keep everything up in the air to have their rules set by Brussels is for the birds. They certainly don’t want to do it at the cost of being able to get on doing business in the interim.

What’s needed now is certainty. Talk to any business, in any sector, and they will tell you the same. Nothing is more damaging to jobs, investment and innovation than this hopeless, endless malaise; this death by a thousand cuts as drip by drip confidence trickles away. Certainty can only be achieved by ditching any ideas of referendum re-runs or reversal or delay. We need to just get on with it, and take back control.

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The pro-EU establishment are sadly continuing to dismiss the ‘little people’

The Alliance of British Entrepreneurs (ABE) and Leave Means Leave (LML) have issued a joint statement supported by 300 plus business owners –  businesses large and small – asking for a managed no-deal exit from the EU. The reaction to this from Jim Pickard of the FT has reminded me why I chose, at great […]

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The Alliance of British Entrepreneurs (ABE) and Leave Means Leave (LML) have issued a joint statement supported by 300 plus business owners –  businesses large and small – asking for a managed no-deal exit from the EU. The reaction to this from Jim Pickard of the FT has reminded me why I chose, at great personal cost, to campaign to leave the EU – unbelievably a decision I took three years ago and still it goes on. Jim, a sharp and competent journalist, has chosen to belittle sole trader entrepreneurs, who actually make up a substantial proportion of the economy. This reaction is a classic one of our establishment. 

Looking back in fairness, I had always been a eurosceptic, albeit also a regular visitor for over thirty five years to the Brussels bureaucratic machine and actually with some very good friends within the matrix that is the EU. 

As Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and in 2014 anticipating the EU debate, I set about with the researchers and economists at the BCC to find out the facts about the UK economy, politics and the EU in all its aspects: trade, regulation, migration, sovereignty etc. Much of this I knew from forty years in international business, but I was shocked by some of the results in areas with which I was not familiar. For example, our look into migration and population trends pointed towards half of the UK population being migrants or the children of migrants by 2040, a very rapid transition which would no doubt change and challenge the nature, values and culture of British society forever. The lack of official insight was shocking, one might suspect even deliberate, but such as it was, it pointed to a substantial burden on taxpayers arising from migrant workers in low-skilled jobs.

In 2015, when David Cameron declared he would start negotiations with the EU, I wrote to him on behalf of the BCC an open letter, setting out our expectations from this process. When he returned, as I had anticipated, we at the BCC were able to issue a statement in January 2016 indicating that his efforts had fallen far short of our expectations. The scene was set.

My major concern personally (as for the majority of Brexit supporters I have met) was that of sovereignty, which I had seen eroded over the decades to the point where the UK Parliament was appearing to be the equivalent of a county council in relation to the EU. It is ironic that the Parliament that allowed this to happen without any real resistance from the majority of MPs has kicked up such a fuss about leaving – perhaps this is as good a sign as any of a renewed democratic vigour!

But what really turned me into a campaigner, however, was the overwhelming arrogance of our establishment. The start of 2016 witnessed the all-out assault of Project Fear and the bullying by No. 10 of organisations like mine. It demonstrated an absolute desire to treat the “little people” with contempt and that our “more intelligent” “betters” had no compunction in lying grievously, or at least no respect for the facts unless they supported their world vision and vested interests. That is what led me to resign from the BCC to fight the referendum as Chairman of the Vote Leave Business Council. 

The arrogance of the elite was brought home to me when giving a presentation in Brussels in January 2016 to an audience of senior EU officials. To my astonishment, the first question from the floor was to ask how we could possibly contemplate allowing people who are not college-educated to vote in a referendum, which was met by murmurs of approval from around the room. 

In my many lunches with Lord Heseltine in his role within the Business Department, mentoring Greg Clark and directing people, it became clear that he considered democracy to be merely a tool, a rubber stamp for the will of the ruling class, a way of obtaining “buy in” so as to effect a smooth delivery. This I witnessed again and again amongst what is the new establishment of the liberal, metropolitan elite, no longer the noblesse oblige of landed classes of yesteryear.

One of the first pieces I wrote for the press during the referendum campaign was for the Evening Standard. It compared the mutiny of the Brexiteers to the Medieval Peasants’ Revolt. I ended the piece by warning that the establishment are vicious in pursuit of their own vested interests and so it has proved to be.  

I came to mistrust our establishment so much that I continued to campaign even after we won the referendum with Leave means Leave – and a good job it is that we continued our vigilance, since there has been a determined effort by the establishment to reverse Brexit, to ignore democracy, simply because it doesn’t suit them.

The reaction of the FT to the statement by business supporters of the ABE and LML calling for no deal was just such a continuation of the dismissal of “the little people” who inconveniently just happen to be voters.

The statement fits very well with my experience of business, large swathes of which want to leave the EU. Many dare not stick their heads above the parapet, so viscous has been the Remainer backlash. Those that are willing and able tend to be business owners, entrepreneurs large and small. Not, you will note, the salary men who run the corporate multinationals, focused on their bonuses and the three-year cycle before they move on. 

Family-owned or -run businesses make up the vast majority of the UK economy from sole traders to large companies. They trade around the world and domestically. They are the backbone of the economy. They are the innovators and risk takers. They are the future. Watch out establishment, they don’t believe in you anymore.

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The Alliance of British Entrepreneurs is giving a voice to businesses which are positive and optimistic about Brexit

The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 recently gave coverage to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement that Britain will be welcomed into the Trans-Pacific Partnership with “open arms” after it leaves the EU. In a bizarre turn of phrase, the BBC presenter described this as a ‘tonic for Brexiteers’. The referendum – that decisive, […]

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The Today programme on BBC Radio 4 recently gave coverage to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement that Britain will be welcomed into the Trans-Pacific Partnership with “open arms” after it leaves the EU. In a bizarre turn of phrase, the BBC presenter described this as a ‘tonic for Brexiteers’.

The referendum – that decisive, once-in-a-generation ‘People’s Vote’ – took place on 23rd June 2016. Whether you voted Leave or Remain is now moot. To quote one MP: ‘We are all Brexiteers now’. The people of this country gave their clear instruction and the Government must deliver on it. Therefore, the BBC was incorrect. What Prime Minister Abe stated was not a tonic for Brexiteers but a tonic for the whole United Kingdom.

Yet from spring 2018 onwards we have witnessed a co-ordinated and unrelenting media assault on Brexit by multinational companies and their confederations. Day after day, the British public and its Government have been subjected to thinly-veiled threats from those corporations and interest groups with most to gain from the status quo. Their arguments about the dangers of Brexit have been allowed to percolate freely down into our national consciousness without any analysis or rebuttal. We presumed the battle was won and thus have surrendered the business argument.

Suddenly Brexit had stopped being a cut and thrust of differing opinions and become a torrent of carefully orchestrated negativity. What was missing was the voice of businesses that were positive and optimistic about the future of a sovereign Britain – the hundreds and thousands of smaller businesses with no lobbying power and fragmented representation who saw opportunity from Brexit as a catalyst for change. So it was that the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs (or, like the Japanese Prime Minister, ABE for short) was founded out of frustration by me and Ed Harden.

ABE set out to give those smaller businesses a banner under which to gather and a mouthpiece to amply their voice. Our great aim was to remind both the Government and the British public that business does not start and end with Airbus and the CBI. In late September, 200 of our business supporters wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph in support of a Canada-style free trade deal. We have since, in true entrepreneurial style, grown explosively, nearly doubling in size in a couple of weeks.

We are often asked why we refer to our business supporters as entrepreneurs. In our mind’s eye, it is easy to imagine an entrepreneur as a certain type of person. Someone involved in the tech industry perhaps. Someone modern, disruptive and metropolitan. Indeed, we have a number of supporters who fit those criteria. However, for ABE, being an entrepreneur is about a mindset. To us, entrepreneurship is characterised by adaptability and a positive outlook coupled with a firm sense of self-belief and a willingness to take responsibility. This definition transcends background, sector, geography or gender. As such, we are proud to have the backing of hundreds of entrepreneurs: from the sole traders in the West Midlands to the CEO of a London-based asset manager and all the family businesses, manufacturing firms, haulage companies and fishing boats in between.

Whilst we have had some initial success, we face two great challenges. The first of these is apathy.

Brexit didn’t end with the referendum. That vote was the first shot in a battle that is now being fought hand to hand in the mud with both sides dug in. The public at large are tired by years of political wrangling and are perplexed as to why it is taking so long. Even amongst those small businesses and entrepreneurs who feel passionately about the future of this country many are too busy running their day-to-day activities – investing, training and expanding – to devote time to campaigning. We have tried to counter this by doing their campaigning for them. Seeking their views on a light-touch basis and then doing the leg work to get them heard as one of a hundred voices singing the same tune.

The second great challenge was communication. SMEs don’t have corporate PR firms on eye-watering monthly retainers. Indeed, most don’t even have a separate media department. Even where there was the will to share their view, this was drowned out by the lobbying and closed forums of the big business and establishment set-up. We knew we lacked the resources to broadcast at a conventional level. Instead, using the power of social media and specific, targeted correspondence we have aimed to create enough noise to be heard. Our short-term goal has been to disrupt and interfere with the prevailing message of the big lobby groups. Every time they have a press release ready, we’ll be there putting one of our entrepreneurs forward with a counter that relates to their own business, hitting their statements with real world, real business rebuttals.

We admit that our entrepreneurs don’t and can’t always speak for their thousands of employees. But as the strategic decision-makers for those firms, they have looked at the future and seen a Britain that prospers outside the EU: a free-trading, dynamic Britain whose regulation stays lithe and reactive to changes in the global economy; a Britain that looks resolutely outwards and unrelentingly seeks out new global alliances and partnerships. This Britain cannot exist under the Chequers proposal. ABE will continue to lobby for a Canada-style free trade deal that respects the referendum and allows British business to once again take its place at the top table of global trade.

This great and noble opportunity must not be squandered.

Find our more about the Alliance of British Entrepreneurs at their website

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