The Prime Minister will not give a running commentary on her Brexit strategy or the status of ongoing talks.
She will not move on this: she shows zero interest in feeding the media beast, nor in the sort of roundtables with policy-makers and businesses commonly used by David Cameron. So how can businesses anticipate what Brexit might look like and how can they exert their own influence?
Ordinarily, businesses would think about the pressure points on the Prime Minister. They might ask where political, media, public and other organised opposition might come from and put themselves in Theresa May’s shoes. They would think about May’s best strategy and the areas that might cause her problems. And businesses might seek to influence opposition groups with a view to securing a better outcome.
But we are not in ordinary political times. May faces no effective opposition to her Brexit strategy – not just opposition to withdrawal per se, but to the type of Brexit she has been moulding. Credit where it is due: she is a deft political operator who knows how to neutralise her opponents. But we must acknowledge virtually all opposition groups are in a state of disarray.
Labour are a joke party under Jeremy Corbyn. The Lib Dems, for all their shouting, along with the various pro-European groups, seem to spend most of their time moaning existentially about what Brexit says about Britain as a country, rather than offering credible alternative policies. And, from the other side, Ukip are yet again a shambles.
Consequently, May has pulled off audacious decisions with little backlash. Over the last few weeks she has announced a possible continuation of free movement with little noise from hardline eurosceptics, and she has promoted a post-Brexit trade deal with Saudi Arabia to little criticism about human rights from Labour MPs. May even managed to rule out Single Market membership without a major bust-up with Britain’s business community.
The absence of organised opposition and harsh scrutiny does not mean May can do as she pleases. Those politicians involved in the Leave campaign and now on the backbenches – people like Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Iain Duncan Smith – still have the power to mobilise if major doubts grow about her ability to deliver Brexit. Partly through the House of Commons Select Committee on Exiting the EU, they monitor every minor development closely. But they are not moving yet.
Which takes us back to businesses: how can they anticipate change and affect it?
First, they should understand the character of May and those that will play the biggest role in the negotiations: chancellor Philip Hammond and Brexit secretary David Davis. These are not revolutionaries in the mould of Gove.
Rather, they act pragmatically and reactively, and negotiations will be a meaningful exchange with European politicians and officials. They will seek to secure the national interest as best they can, but there is no ideological blueprint. With this in mind, businesses should be looking hard at the geopolitical and raw electoral forces that will shape the minds of European negotiators. The state of the EU members’ economies, the polls in each country and the potential power of populists from the left and right will all be weighing on the minds of Europeans that come to the negotiating table.
Second, businesses should get into the business of practical, realistic policy creation themselves. It will not come from the political parties – and the think tanks will be focused on the big picture. Conventional lobbying is practically always a waste of time but particularly so in this context. What British politicians and civil servants require now is not broad brush advice on the need for “light regulation and low tax” but real policies that can help important sectors and the wider economy, and that are at least politically neutral and ideally politically popular. Politicians and civil servants will welcome it.
Third, businesses should keep in mind the nuclear option: the use of public opinion. I won’t labour a point I have made here many times: politicians are always, always influenced by public opinion – as the government’s reversal on its proposed increase in NICs for the self-employed showed.
It is possible that opposition groups – hardline eurosceptics and pro-Europeans – will mobilise and that we will return to a more conventional environment where combat and harsh scrutiny are part of political life. But there are no signs of that yet and businesses must act accordingly.