Theresa May urged to rebuild business bridges for Brexit
Theresa May has been urged by her former policy chief to step up her links with business leaders, amid an acceptance in Number 10 that the prime minister was cut off from corporate advice on Brexit before last month’s election.
John Godfrey, Mrs May’s recently departed policy director and a former executive at Legal and General, the insurer, has proposed that a rotating cast of senior executives be assembled to meet the prime minister on a quarterly basis. This would be backed by standing committees conducting detailed work on issues facing industry.
Mr Godfrey’s comments reflect a view in Mrs May’s inner team that, before the election, the prime minister was a remote figure to the business community; she held several private dinners for corporate leaders and their spouses but little more.
One May aide said Downing Street has had a post-election realisation that it had not been sufficiently open to business, especially on the need to seek expert advice on the commercial implications of Brexit.
Greg Clark, business secretary, has emerged as a conduit and will join David Davis, the Brexit secretary, for a Brexit meeting with senior executives and business groups at Chevening, the foreign secretary’s country residence in Kent, on Friday.
But Mr Godfrey, speaking for the first time since leaving his job as head of the Number 10 policy unit two weeks ago, said it was important that Mrs May heard business views first hand.
“There is a shortage of business experience at the heart of government, still sometimes a degree of mutual incomprehension,” he said, adding that, while Mr Clark’s department “consults widely and effectively”, it is unable to “do all the heavy lifting without support from the centre”.
The prime minister disbanded the business advisory group set up by David Cameron, her predecessor, as she tried to distinguish herself from the old regime. The group had allowed Mr Cameron a regular sounding with prominent UK chief executives. Nick Timothy, Mrs May’s co-chief of staff sacked after the election, was also keen that Mrs
May should put distance between herself and big business as part of a rebranding that aimed to connect the Conservatives to working families.
More than 20 business figures have been invited to Friday’s Chevening event, including chief executives of leading FTSE 100 companies and leaders of business groups such as the CBI,
British Chambers of Commerce and EEF.
The meeting will act as the prelude to a fortnightly meeting of a new business council, set up by ministers after the election to advise on Brexit. Mrs May is expected to be an occasional attendee at that group.
Craig Beaumont, head of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said his group would use the Chevening meeting to raise issues including trade, immigration, jobs and skills. He said the rights of EU citizens in the UK was a significant issue for his group’s members, arguing that European expats who arrive in Britain before Brexit occurs should be allowed to say.
“We don’t want anything retrospective,” Mr Beaumont said.
Adam Marshall, head of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the government needed to “cede some ground” to the EU in order to give businesses the maximum certainty on the cut-off date.
Mrs May has suggested protections would only be guaranteed to EU citizens living in Britain in March 2017, when Britain notified Brussels of its intention to leave the EU.
The prime minister envisages an unspecified “cut-off date” at some point before Brexit occurs in two years, after which newcomers are less certain to attain “settled status”.
Business groups want the cut-off to be March 2019, the Brexit date, to provide maximum stability for their EU workers.
“Scores of businesses are telling us that people are leaving or thinking about leaving, not least because of the ambiguity around the cut-off date,” said Mr Marshall.
But Mr Marshall said migration is only one of many questions his group’s members had on the government’s approach to Brexit.
“It’s everything from who can they hire and for long? Will their goods get stopped at Customs? Who do they pay VAT to? Who is the regulator for their industry? This sort of everyday business questions needs to be answered to avoid bumps in the road later,” he said.
Mr Marshall said companies were worried about facing two sets of “adjustment costs”, firstly at the point of departure and then later at the point of the final deal. “Ideally, we want a single adjustment rather than multiple adjustments to new regulations, rules, tax bills and compliance.”
George Parker & Jim Pickard