JAMES BALL: Politics fiddles while our business burns

PUBLISHED: 11:45 31 January 2019

CBI Director General, Carolyn Fairbairn has also highlighted the concerns many businesses in the UK will be having of a no-deal Brexit. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

CBI Director General, Carolyn Fairbairn has also highlighted the concerns many businesses in the UK will be having of a no-deal Brexit. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

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JAMES BALL discusses his fears about the impact a no-deal Brexit could have on businesses in the UK.

For anyone who foolishly still held any hope in the ability of the UK’s politicians to avoid the worst of Brexit, this week surely marked the final, bitter disappointment.

Tuesday night – which saw MPs vote on seven different amendments, ranging from the faintly sensible to the downright deluded – saw a muddled defeat for almost every variant of Remain, save for a symbolic but meaningless victory for a motion supposedly ruling out a no-deal Brexit.

Mundane reality dictates that the UK has only three choices ahead of it: to leave the EU with a deal functionally identical to the one negotiated by Theresa May (leaving a future government free to negotiate a permanent future relationship); leaving the EU with a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, which would tank the world economy; or stopping Brexit entirely by revoking Article 50, either with or without a referendum endorsing that decision.

Naturally, our country’s MPs didn’t lower themselves to dealing with reality, instead voting on a series of amendments which ultimately would have done nothing – pass or fail – to change the underlying reality.

Arguably the most sensible of the motions under consideration was the Cooper amendment, brought by former Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper. This amendment, which won the grudging support of the Labour frontbench, would have given parliament more control over Brexit, and mandated the government to seek an extension to Article 50 until some kind of way out of our quagmire was found. Naturally, it failed by 23 votes.

Labour’s frontbench tried to pass a motion supporting its own impossible version of Brexit – a unicorn for every family, and a puppy for every child – which was swiftly voted down.

Of the remaining five amendments, one which passed ruled out no-deal without offering any alternative. This is an idea almost exactly akin to being on board an aeroplane rapidly running out of fuel, only to discover the passengers in first class are assuring you everything is fine – as they have agreed to vote to rule out a crash landing, before retiring for a nap.

Theresa May’s favoured amendment’s status was almost an irrelevance – a revision led by the influential chairman of the 1922 committee Graham Brady, which required the PM to go back and renegotiate the backstop with her EU counterparts.

For such a supposedly crucial vote, the decision was almost historically unimportant: for one, May had publicly announced earlier in the day – before the debate was done, let alone the vote tabled – that she would seek to renegotiate this point. The second point, woefully ignored in the UK, was that the EU has repeatedly and firmly ruled out re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement for negotiation.

Pass or fail, the Brady amendment would have done nothing more than give the prime minister licence to waste another two weeks asking for the impossible, before returning to the Commons with absolutely nothing. In the end, the vote passed – making compromise harder, and reinforcing May down her path.

The ridiculousness of the House of Commons, and its meaningless internal-politicking shenanigans, might have made light entertainment were it not for the backdrop provided by the UK’s big businesses – who find themselves with less than two months left to tackle either the UK’s staged, permanent separation from the biggest single market in the world, or, worse, a sudden and catastrophic exit from that bloc, disrupting their every supply line.

The week of the Commons’ shameful votes also marked business making it clearer than ever that Brexit will prove intolerable to their trade. After the votes, Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, described the Brady amendment as “like a throw-of-the-dice”, adding: “I don’t think there will be a single business this morning who is stopping or halting their no-deal planning. I fear they may even be accelerating it.” She went on: “Until MPs can agree a solution, delay will do nothing to lift the threat of an economic cliff edge that is draining money from the UK.”

The first signs were marked by the decision of Dyson – the vacuum cleaner and fan company helmed by arch-Brexiteer James Dyson – to shift its headquarters out of the UK to Singapore, for reasons they promise have nothing to do with Brexit.

If that weren’t warning enough, the UK’s biggest supermarkets and fast food retailers united for an unprecedented intervention warning against no-deal. In painstaking detail, the food businesses set out the impossibility of preparing for no-deal in the meagre time they have left.

Fresh food can’t be stockpiled: it obviously rots. There is not enough refrigerated or frozen warehouse space existing in the country to stock up. There is barely enough warehouse space available at short notice to stockpile goods that would last. The UK’s supple chains aren’t set up for such a scenario. The UK’s food supplies rely on deliveries via the English Channel, and there are no viable alternatives that exist. There is nothing they can do to prevent shortages in the event of a no-deal.

In any normal circumstance, these warnings would lead every bulletin for a week. They would cover every front page for days. No political leader would be able to sustain the warnings. The country would roundly and soundly reject the insanity that could lead to the world’s sixth-richest country facing shortages at the supermarket shelves.

Instead… near silence. As business – which does not have the luxury of ignoring reality – shouts its loudest to ask politicians to avert disaster, their cries fall on deaf ears, ignored in favour of an elaborate but irrelevant dance of point-scoring amendments.

We are in the final days of the beginning: if we do nothing, we will have left the EU before eight more issues of this newspaper are published. If we do it without a deal, it will not only be our supermarket shelves that are empty. Our car factories will be silenced. Our garment industry will be shredded. The beating heart of the city – the financial services that fuel our economy – will be stilled.

And still our politicians do nothing.

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