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Nigel Hastilow: Brexit means chaos

By Nigel Hastilow | Nigel Hastilow | Published:

What do we want? Brexit. When do we want it? Well, you know, today, tomorrow, sometime, never, whenever it might be convenient for all parties, not in any real hurry or if it’s just, well, too much trouble, we really don’t want to bother you when you’ve got so much on your plate already.

What does the future hold for the Brexit negotiations?

Please and thank you and thank you for having us.

That, or something very like it, seems to be Britain’s official negotiating attitude when it comes to discussing our withdrawal from the European Union with our friends and partners in Brussels or elsewhere across the continent.

There’s no urgency just as there is absolutely no clarity. We do not know what we want or when we might get it.

On becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May famously declared: ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ Alas, nobody had the foggiest idea what Brexit means Brexit actually meant then and we are no clearer two long, tedious years on.

In theory, all will become clear on July 9 when the Government publishes a White Paper on the question. Two years too late.

The fatal error those 17.4 million of us who voted to leave the EU were guilty of is not the decision itself. It was to assume our leaders were capable, grown-up, clever, united, purposeful politicians ready and willing to execute the will of the people with the minimum of fuss and disruption.

This was a terrible mistake. How were we to know Cabinet Ministers would be at each other’s throats day after day, scoring points, stabbing backs, jumping ships and otherwise trying to outdo each other for idiocy and misplaced ambition?

We have recently heard apocalyptic warnings from various companies like Airbus and BMW as well as organisations representing big business about the perils of leaving the EU.

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Their major gripe is that, only a few months away from the official departure date of March 29 next year, they still have no idea what Brexit looks like. Customs Union? In or out? Single market? Out or in? Free movement of goods and people? Yes or no?

Maybe the White Paper will finally answer these questions. And maybe not.

It’s inevitable big businesses plan for the worst. What else can they do when the anti-Brexit minority continues with their ‘Project Fear’ warnings as if the decision to quit the EU had never been taken?

Politicians on both sides of the great divide seem to have forgotten what matters most is the state of the economy and it’s the task of businesses to create the wealth and jobs to maintain our prosperity.

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Yet every business is being kept in ignorance. Their frustration is hardly surprising. How can they make long-term investment decisions when they really do not know what life in Britain will be like for industry in even a few months’ time?

The attitude of ministers doesn’t help. Business Secretary Greg Clark has encouraged Airbus in its criticism of the Brexit negotiations – though the aerospace industry is free of import duties under World Trade Organisation rules so the French-owned company will be unaffected.

Mr Clark’s stirring was not exactly helpful but not as bad as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s retort: ‘Fxxx business.’

For all his charm and witticisms, and the explanation that he was referring to the always-wrong bosses’ group the CBI, Boris’s remark is pretty unforgivable for a senior Conservative.

(Mind you, Mr Johnson’s flying visit to Afghanistan to save him having to vote against the expansion of Heathrow Airport has surely destroyed any lingering hopes he may have had of becoming Prime Minister.)

Businesses are pretty adaptable. They should be able to work around most of the changes imposed by Brexit, assuming there will be some. The aim must be to make their lives easier, not harder.

But at the moment it’s guesswork. Big companies are preparing a range of contingency plans depending on what Brexit actually turns out to look like. That’s a rational approach to take, especially for a multi-national.

But their worst-case scenarios almost certainly mean moving production and jobs to the other side of the English Channel.

This is not an inevitable consequence of Brexit. It is a result of the abject failure of this increasingly intolerable and incompetent Government to grasp the problems of Brexit and deal with them.

It is not beyond the wit of man to leave the EU without pulling down the entire house of cards. Brussels may want to make it as difficult as possible for us but when Eurocrats complain we still haven’t told them what it is we really want, they are right.

Our political leaders do not know what it is they want from Brexit so their negotiating position is as firm as jelly and as straightforwardly honest as a Carillion profits forecast.

It is possible the much-heralded White Paper will magically transform the landscape and lead us happily towards the sunlit uplands of Brexit. But I’m not holding my breath.

Nigel Hastilow

By Nigel Hastilow

Express & Star columnist

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