Final countdown: East’s bosses hopeful Brexit deal can be done

Brexit looms for businesses in the East - but it could still go either way

Brexit looms for businesses in the East - but it could still go either way - Credit: Archant

Just six week to go and businesses remain worried about the fallout from Brexit. But does the government still have a chance to rescue the negotiations?

When the polls closed on June 23, 2016, very few of us believed we would be in the perilous position we are right now.

At 10pm that night the exit polls suggested the row over the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe was about to be put to bed for a generation.

Yes the likes of Nigel Farage and some Conservative backbenchers would continue their campaign to ditch Brussels. But almost everyone believed then prime minister David Cameron had rolled the referendum dice and won again.

But the great political gambler was about to lose his home, his career and send the UK’s business community spiralling into years of uncertainty.

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Back then the row over Leave or Remain, second referendums and the legitimacy of the poll was really only just beginning. But now all those bitter arguments should be over.

Many businesses wanted to stay in Europe. But once the results were in they accepted what had happened and asked for only one thing: A plan.

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And yet time after time businesses have been let down by bad politics and rabid infighting.

Leave, Remain, soft or hard Brexit – to say it is “six to one and half a dozen to the other” would be over simplifying it.

So here we are – there are six weeks to save this mess. We are almost at the moment of truth.

The best business can hope for from here is a return to a post-European single market arrangement. So basically back to around 1992 after the pound was dumped out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – that cost us around £3.3bn, which sounds fairly reasonable given the mountain of debt 2020 has coughed up.

Britain – and East Anglia more than a lot of other regions – needs a free trade agreement with the European Union. This is not about sovereignty, flag waving or bendy bananas this is about commerce. This is about our economy.

Some have suggest trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation tariffs will be fine. It won’t be the end of the world but for many businesses those extra tariffs will be hugely damaging.

There is still time though – but it is fast running out.

For prime minister Boris Johnson the tightrope has always been honouring the public’s clamour for sovereignty while gaining access to the EU market. The fear politically for the Conservative PM is that if his negotiators give up too much he will be accused of delivering a Brexit in name only. And he is fully aware of how dangerous Brexit is for prime ministers – two down but how many might it still overhaul?

Now is the time to put the economy first and sell the reasons to the public hard.

One stumbling block which might have been removed for Mr Johnson is the thorny issue of state aid for British business after Brexit. The PM’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings was staunchly opposed to agreeing to legislation that would tie the UK’s internal market to a subsidy regime overseen by an independent regulator.

Outwardly the PM will not want to be seen to be budging on EU demands. But managed correctly it will be easier for him to do this now – with the economy ravaged by a pandemic – than it would have been 12 months ago. Is now the time for Number 10 to abandon any hopes of a light-touch regulatory approach so beloved by the hard-Brexit wing?

The premier could still deliver his favourite option – and business would forever be grateful.

A so-called “Canada-style” deal is within reach. This would mean zero tariffs on goods and – as long as Mr Johnson can pacify the Brexiteers – and hopefully still allow the maximum sovereignty. As it stands the EU claims the UK is asking for more than Canada achieved however – and our neighbours might have a point. The UK’s size and proximity do mean we are more of a threat to the EU than Canada – hence the nervousness about regulatory regimes.

The East of England has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Europe. Our relationship with the Netherlands has proved especially important through the decades and everything must be done to maintain that.

Without wanting to push the football analogy too far we are approaching the final kicks. And a draw might just be the best outcome for the UK, Europe and East Anglia.

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