I'm an optimist.
Optimism, of a sort, is what my clients pay me for so it would be impossible for me to function without it. So I’ve tried over the last year since Brexit, oh I really have. And, for a while, I got close.
After the shock of the referendum I tried to convince myself that it might not be so stupid after all. I reasoned that most people who voted Remain (like me) were as ideologically simplistic in their motivation as those who voted Leave – so I figured that it needn’t follow as fact that Leave was wrong. And as I contemplated this through the back end of 2016, business prospered. Clients did not stop spending. As the pound dropped in value my pricing became more attractive in international markets and won us work. Debts we held in foreign currencies re-valued themselves in our favour. In 2016 we were more successful as a result of Brexit than we would have been with Remain.
As the year turned it occurred to me that Britain was, in fact, in a uniquely stable situation. Trump was US President. Elections loomed in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Italy and anti-European parties were in the frame. Britain had a firm-minded Prime Minister and a seemingly unelectable opposition. The one major western country where political stability appeared likely was the UK. The distraction of politics wasn’t an issue, we were in get-it done mode. That could be a strong position from which to negotiate a decent deal.
Then Theresa May shattered my burgeoning optimism by calling a General Election that has proved to be every bit as horribly ill-judged as Cameron’s referendum. In doing she did three things. She demonstrated, again, that politicians value their own power more than they value the interests of British business or people. She shattered what little sense of stability or business confidence we had – which will have a serious negative effect on the economy. She undermined the credibility of the nation’s negotiating position. If this were a business negotiation, most bosses wouldn’t even bother turning up.
Brexit was a mess a year ago and its status is now worse not better.
Yet a sliver of hope remains. The election has made Brexit less likely, not more likely. We’re not in a position to negotiate a good deal so we’ll be offered a bad one or, more likely, no deal at all. Meanwhile, the EU recognises its need to reform and may evolve into something more palatable to British tastes. Politicians, struggling for power, will scheme their way towards chaos, making another election the only escape. The opportunity for the public to reject Brexit must surely be tabled at that point – by one major party, if not all – and a majority of the British public will grasp it with blessed relief.
There hasn’t been a Brexit yet and I refuse to accept there has to be one. There’s optimism for you. Of a sort.
Jim Prior is chief executive at The Partners.