With friends like these, it's no wonder business leaders are despondent

PUBLISHED: 07:00 14 November 2017

United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross speaks at the annual CBI conference in London

United States Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross speaks at the annual CBI conference in London

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What do the Hard Brexiteers think of ‘taking back control’ only to have the US wade into the UK’s trading standards? ANGELA JAMESON investigates whether chlorinated chicken is back on the menu

This summer Liam Fox turned many people’s stomachs when he suggested the UK should be open to accepting poultry that is washed in chlorine as part of a trade deal with the US.

The process is banned by the UK but compulsory in the US.

Earlier this week one of Donald Trump’s key advisers arrived in London to tell a business audience that not only should they accept chlorinated chicken but that they should help in unpicking the regulatory standards that the EU had imposed, which effectively make it harder for the US to sell their products into the trading bloc.

Wilbur Ross, the 79-year-old US commerce secretary, is a divisive figure. He became known as a vulture investor, making a fortune after investing in faltering businesses likes steel mills and coal mills. Even as he addressed the CBI conference in London it was emerging that Ross has been doing business with Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law through a shipping venture in Russia.

His comments to the CBI underline the difficulties that Britain faces in striking new trade deals to replace its EU relationships.

Ross came to tell the UK that the US “wants to be your number one trading partner worldwide” but that BFF status comes with strings.

Ross launched an attack on “burdensome and unnecessary” EU labelling requirements for chemicals, suggesting that European regulations governing the safety of imports such as chlorine-washed chicken wilfully ignored US scientific research.

He also criticised geographic indicators on food products and called for the UK to allow car manufacturers to self-certify that vehicles meet safety standards. When asked about the recent aircraft tariffs that have put more than 1,000 Northern Irish jobs at risk, Ross said: “Even our best friends have to really play by the rules.”

US friendship comes with menaces, apparently. He warned that any deal with Brussels to maintain regulations might “hinder development of a closer post-Brexit US-UK relationship”.

It all smacks of negotiating with one playground heavy, while a second more shrewd bully whispers provocations in your ear.

Ross’s comments are likely to find favour with the Hard Brexiteers who argue that any hint of a deal or a transition, whereby the UK simply adopts EU standards and regulations wholesale, could damage future negotiations in non-EU markets.

But not even Hard Brexiteers want to take back control, simply to have the US wade in to British standard setting.

The CBI conference took place in an atmosphere of despondency, which can be found these days wherever chief executives and big company leaders meet to shake their heads and grumble.

The FTSE 100 hit an all-time high at the end of last week and the oil price is recovering, yet three companies pulled their London flotations – most of them blaming the markets and uncertainty.

The Bank of England’s decision to raise interest rates by a quarter of one percent to 0.5% is seen not as confirmation that Britain is finally returning to normal, but affirmation that Brexit-induced inflation is damaging the economy and will not recede quickly.

Retail figures out this week also underline how shoppers are tightening their belts. Sales fell by 1%, according to the British Retail Consortium and KPMG, with a worrying decline in non-food items – the worst performance in non-food since 2011. Middle class bellwether John Lewis saw sales slide by 3.7% last week.

Shoppers may be saving their cash for Christmas, but the signs are that this festive season will be particularly tough. Analysts are predicting casualties by the first working week of the New Year.

For the 170,000 businesses represented by the CBI and for the many more smaller businesses, the big risk is what the final Brexit package will look like.

Leaving a transition deal to very late in the day, as now seems to be occurring, increases the uncertainty for businesses and justifies slowing down investment and hiring. Take the poor chicken farmer: why should they invest if there’s a chance that the market might be flooded with cheap US chicken with a whiff of swimming pool by the end of 2019?

Projections of immediate doom and gloom may have been overdone, but sitting tight and waiting for the politicians to hammer out a deal is not helping to bring home the bacon.

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