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'Confidence in our leaders is almost gone': business chiefs react to Brexit 'circus'

Oscar Williams-Grut
·Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
CBI Director General, Carolyn Fairbairn speaks at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in central London, on November 19, 2018. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
CBI Director General, Carolyn Fairbairn speaks at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in central London, on November 19, 2018. Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Business leaders have attacked the “failed politics” of Brexit and said leaving without a deal must be urgently ruled out to protect jobs and the economy.

Business lobbies unanimously condemned what one group CEO called the “circus” around Britain’s exit from the EU. New tariff plans announced by the government on Wednesday were called “disgraceful” and criticised for potentially dealing a “sledgehammer” blow to the UK’s economy.

“Enough is enough,” Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said on Tuesday. “This must be the last day of failed politics. A new approach is needed by all parties. Jobs and livelihoods depend on it.”

Her comments came after MPs rejected prime minister Theresa Mays’ Brexit deal for the second time on Tuesday evening, setting up a second vote in parliament later today on whether to rule out a no-deal Brexit.

‘Many businesses are not ready’

Dr Adam Marshall, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said on Tuesday night: “Businesses have been failed over and over again by Westminster in recent months.

Government agencies are not ready, many businesses are not ready, and despite two and a half years passing since the referendum, there is no clear plan to support communities at the sharp end of such an abrupt change.”

The BCC represents 53 business chambers across the UK that are made up of thousands of businesses which employ around 6m people.

Ian Wright CBE, the CEO of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, which represents 7,000 businesses, said last night: “As we teeter on the brink of the cliff edge, just seventeen days’ away, confidence in our political leaders is almost gone.”

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said: “Political games have dominated Westminster for far too long and this defeat simply extends the political paralysis that is bringing us perilously close to the cliff edge.”

Tariff plans would be ‘sledgehammer’ to the economy

On Wednesday, the government set out its plans for tariffs under a no deal Brexit. 87% of overseas imports would face no tariffs at all.

The government claimed the plan would “minimise costs to business and consumers while protecting vulnerable industries” but business lobbies quickly condemned the plans.

CBI’s Fairbairn warned they would be a “sledgehammer” blow to the economy. The CBI is the UK’s biggest business lobby, representing 190,000 businesses and seven million jobs.

The BCC’s Dr Marshall criticised the government’s failure to consult with businesses and said: “If the tariffs announced today were to come into effect, there would be winners and losers across UK industry overnight.”

Allie Renison, Head of Europe and Trade at the Institute of Directors, dismissed the no-deal planning as “cack-handed”.

“Making these tariff decisions temporary will lead to widespread confusion about what may change and when, as firms will want to know well in advance about how duties may rise,” she said. “Such unpredictability may also have consequences for our trading relations with countries outside the EU as well.”

The FDF’s Wright said: “Business cannot adapt to this new regime in just two weeks. It is disgraceful that we are, only now, getting to see these.

“This new system is confusing and complex. It includes some zero tariffs, some new tariffs, and some quotas. Some foodstuffs qualify for partial protection and some not for any protection at all, with little logic to explain the difference.”

The FSB’s Cherry said small businesses would be “undercut in a heartbeat by artificially cheap foreign imports.”

“A sudden no-deal Brexit on 29th March would bring widespread overnight changes to the way small firms do business, which most are unprepared for. At a time they’d be working hard to adapt, the last thing they’d need is their overseas rivals being given a leg-up,” he said.

No-deal ‘an own goal of historic proportions’

Business groups were united in calling for the government to rule out a no-deal Brexit in Wednesday evening’s vote.

Stephen Phipson, CEO of Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation said: “It is now essential that Parliament brings the curtain down on this farce and removes the risk of no-deal tomorrow.

“That outcome would be disastrous for the UK manufacturing, jeopardising many thousands of jobs in every constituency in the land.

Miles Celic, CEO of financial lobbying group TheCityUK, said a no deal Brexit would be “an own goal of historic proportions” and said: “MPs must now say ‘no to no-deal’ and the UK and the EU must urgently return to the negotiating table.”

The FDF’s Wright said: “We can only hope that members of parliament, tomorrow and on Thursday, will vote decisively – and act accordingly – to take a 29 March ‘no-deal’ exit off the table. We now need breathing space in which a clear way forward can be found.”

Fairbairn called for an extension of Article 50 to avoid a no-deal Brexit this month. “It should be as short as realistically possible and backed by a clear plan. It’s time for parliament to stop this circus,” she said.


Oscar Williams-Grut covers banking, fintech, and finance for Yahoo Finance UK. Follow him on Twitter at @OscarWGrut.

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