So now it’s official. Britain’s politicians and opinion-formers will spend the next four months in hyper-drive, as they seek to convince the public of the case to leave or remain in the European Union. Many Westminster-watchers have already cleared the decks, reasoning that little else will get done while megaphone diplomacy, claims, and counter-claims dominate the airwaves.
There is no doubt that the EU referendum is of huge importance to the future direction of our country. The electorate is being asked to make a once-in-a-generation choice with significant consequences. Our own surveys show that businesspeople are divided, and that they are paying closer and closer attention to the referendum and its impacts.
There is, however, a very real danger that the referendum will squeeze the oxygen out of the room – crowding out debate on other key business issues, and paralysing decision-making at the heart of government.
We have already seen one casualty of this, with the delay to a decision on new airport capacity in the South East. First put off because of the mayoral election, expectations are now being further downplayed thanks to the referendum. Politicians have been reduced to saying they “very much hope” to make a decision by the end of July, while observers believe we’d be lucky to see it before the end of the year. Businesses seethe with frustration at the lack of progress on new runways, and now face an even longer wait.
On issue after issue of crucial importance to companies across the UK, the worry we constantly hear is that timetables may slip and commitments may be further deferred.
On tax, will businesses’ legitimate concerns about their treatment by HMRC get the time of day, with the Treasury and Revenue focused on modelling the potential impacts of Brexit?
Will ministers finally grasp the nettle on business rates after years of prevarication, and tackle the politically-tricky issue of revaluation, with the winners and losers this may create?
Will firms’ concerns around the ever-increasing burden of doing business – with the apprenticeship levy, the National Living Wage, dividend tax hikes and others all set to drive up costs – attract the chancellor’s attention at the Budget and beyond?
With business skills shortages reaching all-time highs, will ministers relax the Tier 2 visa cap – and let companies recruit the people they need from outside the EU at a time when migration is the neuralgic issue of the referendum debate?
And what other controversial transport, housing or energy projects are likely to face further delays, as ministers do everything in their power to avoid antagonising a divided electorate?
These are just a small sample of the real world business issues that need to be tackled, without delay. For many firms, these delays and uncertainties are just as pressing as the questions generated by the forthcoming EU referendum.
What’s more, global economic conditions remain a significant cause for concern, as the chancellor himself recognised at the start of the year. While it may be too early to declare that the economic cycle is at its end, there are serious downside risks facing businesses operating both here in the UK and further afield. There is no guarantee that the financial system will escape another liquidity crisis, and access to finance could once again become an acute issue for many firms.
At a time when other governments will be thinking about their counter-cyclical strategies, ours cannot afford a half-year of navel-gazing and paralysis around a single issue. Ministers would do well to remember their commitments to “fixing the roof while the sun is shining” – a job that by their own admission remains incomplete.
So the message from businesses, whatever their views on the referendum itself, is simple. If politicians neglect the UK business environment between now and 23 June because they only have eyes for the referendum, they will be guilty of the political version of gross misconduct. No board of directors would keep a management team that ignored a big chunk of its strategy and missed its core objectives.
We, the electorate, need to apply the same approach to our politicians, who must be reminded that their everyday duty – creating the conditions for prosperity and growth – needs to remain centre-stage. Our future relationship with the EU, while critical, cannot be the only item on the Westminster agenda this spring.
The BCC’s Annual Conference will debate many of these key business themes in London on 3 March (www.bccconference.co.uk).