Brexit and business: where facts trump ideology
FT editor Lionel Barber and editorial director Robert Shrimsley discuss the warnings by big business in the UK over Brexit, and how these could play to Prime Minister Theresa May’s favour in the long game for a softer Brexit.
Studio filmed by Rod Fitzgerald. Produced by Josh de la Mare.
British business has suddenly found its voice on Brexit. In the last few days, a series of companies led by Airbus Industrie have spoken out about the threat to jobs if there is a hard Brexit, a sudden abrupt departure of Britain from the European Union. Here with me to discuss this new twist in the Brexit debate is Robert Shrimsley. You've just taken over Janan Ganesh's British political column. No pressure, Robert.
I wasn't going to wear the winklepickers. It's just I'm not quite ready for them yet.
Or talk about football.
Or talk about football.
So why is British business that's been quite reticent since the referendum two years ago, why are they suddenly speaking up?
I think there are two possible explanations. The first is that they are genuinely concerned that the clock is running down and that there is still no deal. We're about to head to the June summit, which was going to be the place where the European and Britain signed off a transitional arrangement and we move seamlessly into the next stage. We now know that we're nowhere near ready for that. Mrs May is not even going to unveil her white paper on the future relations until July. Everything is slipping towards the end of the year, and businesses are getting nervous.
A second and I think linked possibility is that they also feel they need to shore up the government in its position. Mrs May does appear to be moving Britain towards a deal.
So there's a little bit of co-ordination between Downing Street and organisations, for example, like the CBI, the employers' federation?
I don't know if it's fully co-ordinated, but Downing Street's certainly not unhappy.
Yeah, because Mrs May also, from what we learned - and we had a long account of this with George Parker, the political editor's account, that actually, the secret plan is actually in plain sight, which is Britain stays in the customs union and maybe tries to negotiate a single market with goods, but not financial services.
Yes, I think that's right. And I was talking to a cabinet minister the other day, and he said, look, the point is every time we reach a crunch moment, every time these issues come to the front, the facts trump the ideology. And that what we are seeing is the government facing up to each issue and recognising that the choices are between economic immolation or some kind of compromise.
And I think that Mrs May is ready to have Britain at least semi-permanently in the customs union. And if she can get a single market for goods, yes, I think they'll go for it.
But some people are not at all happy with this prospect. For example, Boris Johnson, the itinerant foreign secretary.
Yes. Boris Johnson, he's in Kabul today. He is apparently, over the weekend, it was reported that he had been overheard at a private reception being confronted with Airbus' comments about jobs and had replied in fairly Saxon terms about business.
This is a family programme.
Yes, in fairly Saxon terms. It's quite remarkable. This is the foreign secretary, after all, and from the party of business, supposedly, saying, essentially, business can get stuffed. We don't care what you think. We're doing this. This is for the good of the nation. And I think -
Is this economic illiteracy or political ambition?
I think that it is a refusal to let - it's the opposite of what Theresa May says, a refusal to let the facts get in the way of your ideology. It's ambition. It's also a sense that economics mustn't trump destiny. But there is a sort of - it's like an explosion of a spoiled child whenever confronted with something it doesn't want to see. And I think that the Brexiters is beginning to squeal quite a lot publicly at the moment, and I think they sense that things are running away from them.
So final question - how is this going to be resolved and when?
Well. I think Theresa May's general strategy is to keep pushing this further and further back. She has used, in a way, her own weakness as a methodology to get what she wants. We've always feared that the Europeans would run the clock on Britain in the negotiations.
I think Theresa May is running the clock on her own party. By letting this deal go backwards and backwards, she's going to confront parliament with a deal that they'll either have to take or face the cliff edge. I think that's her strategy and I think we should assume that she is going to come up with something which is at least tolerable for business, if not ideal.
And, of course, if England win the World Cup, we'll all be happy in this country.
Well that'll be the real Brexit dividend, won't it?
Robert Shrimsley, thank you so much.