East Anglia’s business leaders react to Theresa May calling snap general election

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement in Downing Street, announcing she plans to call a snap

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement in Downing Street, announcing she plans to call a snap general election on June 8. Picture: PHILIP TOSCANO/PA WIRE - Credit: PA

East Anglia's business community has been reacting to prime minister Theresa May calling a General Election for June 8.

Mrs May made the surprise announcement at Downing Street this morning, claiming that divisions at Westminster risked hampering the Brexit negotiations.

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Caroline Williams, chief executive of Norfolk Chamber of Commerce, called for the focus to remain on challenges facing business, rather than being distracted once more by political campaigning.

'The Norfolk business community will understandably be concerned that attention will inevitably shift from the economy and the intricacies of leaving the EU to a potential election campaign,' she said.

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'Firms want to see our local MPs give reassurance that the key challenges facing the economy will be front and centre throughout any election period.'

Salena Dawson, Federation of Small Businesses chairman for East Anglia, said the election campaign presented an opportunity for 'small business issues' to be discussed by candidates across the political spectrum.

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'I have always said that a successful Brexit would depend on a thriving small business sector. If parliament agrees to a fresh election, it will provide the opportunity to focus on how different parties propose to do that,' she said.

The pound surged to its highest level in over two months as the City welcomed the thought of a summer election.

Paul Pearce, investment manager at Hargreave Hale, said the markets were reacting to the prospect of stability if - as polls suggest - the Conservatives can cement a strong overall majority.

'The markets would appreciate it if we get the result the polls indicate, as we think we know which way we'll be going forward, and the current government's plans for Brexit negotiations.

'I think we will have more volatility until June 8, but thereafter we will have the certainty, which will probably have a positive impact on UK markets.

'Whether you agree with the politics or not, there is an impression Conservatives are more pro-business, which of course markets like as well.'

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The announcement came on the final day of consultation for the government's industrial strategy, intended to address sector-specific problems to help boost regional economies.

But Saul Humphrey, director of Morgan Sindall East and chair of the New Anglia LEP's construction and property group, believed the government would struggle to find resources to continue developing the strategy and its housing white paper.

'There was a concern anyway with Brexit negotiations being the predominant issue,' he said.

'Put a general election into the mix as well and there are far fewer resources available to put into things like the housing white paper, at a time when what our sector really needs it certainty.

'There were huge ambitions in the industrial strategy, but achieving that when we have the minutiae of Brexit and a general election to cope with seems a long way off.

'The construction industry would want to see more concentrated investment in infrastructure and a use of the apprenticeship levy to address our skills shortage.'

Simon Gray, chief executive of the East of England Energy Group, said the snap election was likely to cause a pause in investment until the next government's vision was clear.

He said: 'From the energy sectors perspective what it does is throw into question the government's commitment to energy protocols and the Paris Climate Change agreement.

'Post-Brexit will a strengthened and emboldened Tory party continue with all the energy policies we have agreed to?

'For a lot of energy businesses they will be holding fire on investment and we will probably see delays on some of the investments which would have been forthcoming.'

He added clarity was important with Donald Trump dramatically changing the energy landscape in the US by moving towards high-carbon fuels.

One sector which was in line for funding as part of the current government's proposed strategy is the digital and technology industry.

Neil Miles, chairman of TechEast, said: 'The prime minister's announcement is a genuine surprise.

'As the country looks to forge a new future as 'Global Britain', the continued success of the digital sectors will be essential for jobs and growth.

'Tech businesses are innovative and agile by nature and will adapt to the twists in the road up to June 8 and beyond.

'The 2017 Tech Nation report identified the East as one of the leading tech clusters in the UK. We know the East's tech cluster contributes £1.2bn to the growing local economy, including almost 50,000 jobs, in businesses that either produce or intensively use digital technology. If parliament agrees to the June election, I hope that MPs in the East of England will appreciate the importance of region's tech businesses.'

The manufacturing industry was also set to benefit from the industrial strategy, with a view to reinvigorating the sector and improving its global competitiveness.

David Owen, managing director of Lintott Control Systems in Norwich, said: 'From a manufacturers' perspective, the industrial strategy proposed by Theresa May is very welcome.

'However, it is a medium to long-term development so I wouldn't expect the resulting delay from a snap election to have a major impact, unless of course there is a big upset and a major shift in the predicted Conservative success. Many of the non-governmental appointments have already been made and their work has commenced.'

He added that 'targeted investment' in sciences, skills, and infrastructure were crucial to create a 'competitive manufacturing base'.

A general election could be good news for the tourism industry if it 'clears up indecision over Brexit' and accelerates the process, according to Visit East Anglia executive director Pete Waters.

He said: 'If a general election clears up the indecision over Brexit and allows the process to be concluded as soon as possible, and for us to know the way ahead, then that will be good for tourism.

'There has to be a positive outcome for tourism on migration – the industry relies on migrants so, if we are to control our borders, we would encourage the introduction of fixed-term visas or something similar.

'The weaker pound since the referendum has definitely benefitted tourism in the short term, making the UK more attractive to overseas visitors and encouraging more staycations, but sterling recovered after Theresa May's announcement.'

Farming leaders hope the forthcoming election will offer a platform for long-term stability, but warned that the workings of government must not 'grind to a halt' in the meantime – particularly regarding the timely payment of EU-funded subsidies and environmental grants.

Robert Sheasby, East Anglia regional director of the NFU (National Farmers' Union), said: 'The election campaign is likely to be dominated by Brexit, an issue which impacts on farming the most. It's therefore absolutely imperative that our voice is heard to ensure the next government understands farming and supports our vision for a new domestic agricultural policy.

'The next six weeks provide an opportunity to talk to candidates of all the main parties about the requirement for policies that support research, investment and growth. It's a chance to highlight the need for a reliable, competent and flexible labour force after Brexit and to discuss why it's so important to continue to invest in agriculture once we are outside the (EU's) Common Agricultural Policy.

'We will also be working hard to ensure the business of government doesn't grind to a halt between now and June 8, so that issues such as BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) payments and Countryside Stewardship delays continue to be addressed.'

Mrs May made the surprise announcement on the steps of Downing Street this morning.

'At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not,' she said, adding that she had made the decision over Easter recess.

'I have only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion,' the PM said.

'Since I became Prime Minister I have said that there should be no election until 2020.

'But now I have concluded that the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions I must take.'

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