When the Prime Minister announced this snap election, she presented it as a vote on the handling of Brexit – asking the public to choose which leader they wanted to negotiate the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU.
There are businesses out there that understand and applaud her decision, on the basis that it could strengthen the UK’s negotiating position, and possibly also give more breathing space to deliver a clear Brexit deal. Yet for many other companies, for whom Brussels is far away and Brexit far off, the General Election is a distraction that allows politicians to pay less attention to the everyday issues that matter to business growth.
So it would be a mistake for political parties to campaign – or to govern – with Brexit as their sole focus.
Businesses across the UK would be angered if the next government falls down a Brexit rabbit hole, overlooking the long-standing structural issues that need to be addressed here at home because ministers and civil servants are always focused on Brussels.
To put it simply: the best Brexit deal imaginable won’t be worth the paper it’s written on if the fundamentals for growth aren’t right here at home. Competitiveness, productivity, skills, and connectivity – all long-standing challenges for the UK – must be improved to enable businesses to drive our success through Brexit and beyond.
Today the British Chambers of Commerce publishes its manifesto for the election, focusing on the practical measures the next government should adopt to create the best foundations for the UK economy.
The government must deliver a globally competitive business environment. We are less competitive because successive governments have hammered firms with rising up-front costs and taxes, including business rates, the Apprenticeship Levy, auto-enrolment, high energy bills and the insurance premium tax. These costs are weighing on the investment and growth potential of firms, which is why we are calling for the new government to commit to no new upfront taxes or costs on business for the duration of the parliament.
Action is also needed to alleviate the recruitment difficulties facing firms, as skill shortages intensify. The civic-minded businesses I speak to in Chambers across the UK are doing their utmost to address these problems locally, from volunteering in schools to taking on apprentices and training existing staff. Yet the pipeline of skilled, motivated people remains too small for many fast-growing firms to get the talent they need – and the political sabre-rattling around migration is unsettling many.
Infrastructure is another area where more must be done to tackle historic underinvestment. We hear a lot about big-ticket projects like HS2, which of course need to be delivered. But so too do improvements to appalling digital and mobile connectivity in many areas, as well as less “sexy” upgrades to roads and railways. If there are “not spots” in business parks across the UK and even within the City, how can Brexit Britain compete with the world’s top-flight economies?
Finally, if the UK is to achieve lasting growth, the new government must have a clear and durable strategy to harness the potential of our towns, cities, regions and nations. That should include implementing an Industrial Strategy with a clear focus on place, with cross-party support and the resources necessary for it to succeed. Take away the barriers to growth at a local level, and watch business communities drive our future success.
Of course, businesses recognise the importance of securing the best possible deal from the EU negotiations. Europe is going to remain a key market for UK firms, so they want a Brexit deal that enables frictionless trade with the continent.
When it comes to Brexit, the businesses I speak to are primarily interested in getting answers to the practical questions which concern how the process will impact on their operations. Who can I hire? Can my goods get across borders? What standards must my products meet? These are the pragmatic concerns which businesses need clear answers from the next government on, and which must be front and centre during negotiations.
So of course Brexit matters, both to firms and our future prosperity. But without a coherent, long-term agenda for the UK economy that enables companies of every size, sector and location to achieve their potential, Brexit won’t be a success – no matter how good the outcome of the Prime Minister’s negotiations.