Businesses at the FT Summit were exasperated with the politics but still trying to plan for March. James Stewart says it’s vital to think long-term too.
As MPs were debating on Tuesday whether to give parliament a ‘meaningful vote’ on a final Brexit deal, I was a mile away debating the meaningful things business could do while we wait for some clarity although no one was holding their breath!
The fact that we were holding the FT Brexit and Beyond Summit at exactly the same time as political drama was unfolding down the river felt appropriate: like the lobby correspondents waiting outside the Commons who didn’t know the result until the very end, businesses remain in the dark about which way Brexit will swing in just nine months’ time.
Against that backdrop, the sentiment at the conference was understandably serious bordering on exasperated. Business feels like it is trying to build a bridge to a land it can’t see and so has no idea about what materials to use or where to put them. Despite this, the mood was also pragmatic and determined. The old Leave-Remain debates are over. We are now looking for solutions.
And one of the best things business can do right now is make themselves "match fit", as one speaker put it. It is message we have been driving home relentlessly in recent months. All too often I hear people say contingency planning is fine for big companies “but we smaller guys don’t have the time or resources to do everything”. To which I would say, “You’re right. At the moment only a few sectors need to go ‘all out’. For everyone else it’s about taking those ‘no regrets’ decisions that you will have to take sooner or later anyway. In this current climate of uncertainty, better to take them sooner”.
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While it is tempting to focus on the immediate political picture, I think it’s also important to keep one eye firmly on what happens after March 2019 and (we hope) transition. It will be a mistake of historic proportions if we as a society focus all our efforts on short-term mitigation and as a result fail to plan for what Britain might look like and where post-Brexit growth might come from.
For example, our poor productivity would have been an issue for the UK irrespective of Brexit. But if we don’t improve it and find other ways to grow the economy, we won’t have the funds – public or private – to improve our infrastructure, take a lead on technologies such as artificial intelligence or turn our education system into the one that will serve the needs of the economy in 2030 and 2040.
How does your post-Brexit planning feed into this? I believe government will increasingly seek a close and active partnership with business to address these issues, most importantly through its ambitious but unheralded Industrial Strategy. For example, consider what role you might play – and what opportunities are out there – in a wider move to rebalance our economy away from London and towards the regions? The UK is home to both the richest region in Northern Europe (London) and also six of the 10 poorest (West Wales and the Valleys, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire, Tees Valley and Durham and North and North East Outer London). That is not a sustainable position and change will inevitably come.
That is the long-term picture. Between now and March next year it is up to our political leaders to make sure they land a pragmatic and sensible final deal that makes it easier, not harder to address the big issues.
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