Brexit has turned everything on its head – and now business needs to take charge of the debate


Boris Johnson and Theresa May haven't done the heavy-lifting on Britain's place in the world because they haven't needed to (Source: Getty)

City firms and the wider business community should be throwing themselves into policy and campaign design in order to persuade open-minded Tory party leadership candidates of the sort of tax and regulatory framework they need to thrive outside the EU.

Many businesses will be unhappy with last week’s result, but they now have the opportunity to influence government policy to ensure it is the best it can be. This opportunity will not come around again and businesses must grasp it.

There is no doubt that businesses face a prolonged period of uncertainty. We will probably not know who our next Prime Minister will be until the Autumn and we will not know who will be leading negotiations with the EU. More importantly, we do not know the worldview of the likely Tory leadership candidates and therefore the sort of relationship with the rest of the world that may emerge.

Dominated as it was by immigration and pocketbook economics, the referendum campaign barely scratched the surface of these crucial geopolitical issues. That is the nature of campaign life: debates around high policy simply do not happen in combative elections and referendums. Those that expect them to are living on another planet.

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The truth is that few senior politicians have clearly defined views on what our relationship with the EU and the rest of the world should be. With British membership of the EU apparently settled for at least the medium term until David Cameron called a referendum before the last election, hardly anyone in politics has devoted significant time to thinking about big global issues from a British perspective, or even about some of the most fundamental domestic political issues.

Businesses will look in vain for indications about what Boris Johnson or Theresa May think about the prospects of, for example, a Global Free Trade Area along the lines suggested by City A.M. columnist John Hulsman (the best option for Britain’s future I have seen articulated). They will not find past speeches on options for British trade policy, or the best way of reforming procurement policies, or how the global regulatory framework for financial services should be changed. Senior politicians have not done the intellectual heavy lifting because they never had to.

Some businesses might find this unsettling or alarming. But they can view this either as a huge threat to be managed or as a huge opportunity to be exploited. They can spend their time writing 1,000 page risk registers, or they can create campaigns that persuade the incoming Prime Minister and his or her government that there is an approach that ought to be taken to maximise opportunities for British businesses.

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British businesses have often been guilty of over-stating the certainty with which governments operate or their unwillingness to listen to the views of outsiders. In my experience, Number 10 and government departments are desperate for positive ideas from expert outsiders. Ministers and special advisers cannot rely on civil servants to come up with radical new policy suggestions – they simply do not have the mentality or the skills to create them. Furthermore, even where governments appear to have set their heart on a particular course, competent campaigns, particularly those that seem to have public support, often change their mind and governments rarely hold grudges.

Businesses in the City and across Britain can be absolutely sure that Tory leadership candidates and their eventual new government will be desperate for ideas and plans. How should a new immigration policy work to attract the world’s best workers? What should they not forget as they construct a new trade policy? How did procurement laws help and hinder businesses, and how should they be changed? Is there any role for state aid in the regions? Did any EU financial regulation work?

In constructing their public case, businesses need to take a fundamentally different approach to the one they might previously have relied on. Like the result or not, this referendum saw the public, and provincial England above all, give our governing elites a real kicking. They not only rejected membership of the EU, they rejected explicit warnings from the Prime Minister, the chancellor, leading business-people and, whether you consider them veiled or not, from the governor of the Bank of England.

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In the London bubble, we only hear the angry voices of those that wanted to stay in. Outside London, you can only hear the angry voices of working class and lower middle class people annoyed about the policies that successive governments have taken over the last two decades. The next Prime Minister and his or her government will know that they have effectively been swept into power on the back of a massive provincial revolt.

With that in mind, businesses are going to have to ensure that the policies they come up with have popular support. They need to take a campaign mentality – testing ideas out with the public and then showing politicians that they have secured public support. This will make it far, far more likely that the new government will take them up.

Now is not the time for elite to elite conversations – this referendum result has turned everything on its head.