"Britain has woken up to opportunity India": Cobra beer founder Lord Bilimoria on trade, immigration, and Brexit

 
Jasper Jolly
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His Holiness Brahmrishi Shreekumar Swami Ji Honored at House of Commons
Lord Karan Bilimoria (right) is the founder of Cobra beer (Source: Getty)

A month ago the received wisdom across the political spectrum was that Prime Minister Theresa May was about to command a majority of Margaret Thatcher-like proportions as she led the UK to Brexit.

A month later the context has changed utterly: although we have the same Prime Minister, the hung Parliament has thrown the government into disarray at a crucial time.

But this is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Lord Karan Bilimoria, a crossbench peer and staunch Brexit opponent who thinks the General Election has opened the door for business to have its say.

A voice to business

Suddenly a “hard Brexit” direction that was set in stone feels a lot more fluid, Bilimoria tells City A.M.

“Here’s the beauty of what has happened: people’s voices that were silenced before the elections, even people who voted to Remain, the attitude was… people fell in line,” he says. “Now people have got a voice. Parliamentarians who were scared to speak up are speaking up.”

The Cobra Beer founder is scathing when it comes to the people charged with delivering Brexit.

“Theresa May has lost all credibility within her party, within parliament, within the country,” he says.

“She has been anti-business, she has not listened to business, she has not engaged with business.”

Indeed Bilimoria has been vocal in his belief that the British people will rise up and prevent Brexit as the economic toll rises – despite the two main parliamentary parties voting to trigger Article 50 and the small matter of the referendum.

“People will very soon see that the Brexit emperor has no clothes on,” he says. “People are waking up.”

Beyond our borders

For the meantime though, Bilimoria’s efforts are aimed at doing what politicians do best: influencing policy.

We meet at an event launching a book on UK-India trade after Brexit, with chapters from the great and the good of British-Indian business.

Bilimoria is firmly in this camp. The founder of the UK India Business Council, he has been pushing to increase trade between the two for 14 years.

“Britain has woken up to opportunity India,” Bilimoria says. Just in time too, considering India’s GDP is expected to surpass the UK in the next two years, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been on a “one-way” trade liberalisation course, Bilimoria says.

“I think Modi’s got absolutely the right vision for India but obviously executing that vision in a country like India, especially in a federal system where the states are like countries themselves, is not easy,” he adds.

However, Bilimoria is, perhaps unsurprisingly, less positive when it comes to the effect of Brexit on British efforts to have a hand in the Indian economy’s growth.

He slams the argument by many prominent Brexit backers, including minister for international trade Liam Fox, that the ability to agree bilateral trade deals after leaving the EU will be a boon.

“It is nonsense, hypocritical, ignorant talk from people who have never run a business in their lives,” Bilimoria says.

“Did I need free trade deals before when I encouraged business between the UK and India? We got on with it.”

It’s hard not to trust Bilimoria’s judgement on British-Indian relations – after all, 98 per cent of Indian restaurants in the UK serve Cobra beer.

Immigration

In any case, the progress of any British-Indian trade deal will be intimately tied with another issue of concern for Bilimoria: immigration.

The government appears to have interpreted the Brexit vote as implying net immigration must fall, still to the “tens of thousands” target first introduced by former Prime Minister David Cameron. Yet any move to limit Indian businesspeople from coming to Britain would likely hinder a trade deal.

For Bilimoria, himself the third generation of his family to be educated in Britain, the immigration debate has extra salience because of his role as chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

International students coming to the UK are a prominent form of British “soft power”, he says. He wants a two-year post-graduate visa for international students and a removal of students from the migration target.

He said: “David Cameron told me in no uncertain terms we should take international students out of the net migration figures, but my understanding was he wanted to do it after the EU referendum.”

Rebellions

As a peer Bilimoria’s strong views need to be listened to: it is a safe bet that he will be working prominently in the public debate, but the weakness of the government will also increase the scope for influence in passing the actual Brexit legislation.

Policies in government manifestos are generally allowed through by the unelected House of Lords under the Salisbury convention. The Conservative party confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party leaves a lot more room for manoeuvre.

“There’s a debate about whether it applies or not”, says Bilimoria. “But the Salisbury convention never stops the House of Lords from amending legislation. We will amend as much as we think we need to if we think it’s in the best interests of the people.”

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