Brexit: Sir James Dyson might be optimistic but some of Britain's most important industries are very worried

As Theresa May prepares to start the Brexit process, the Government has been warned about the dangers of failing to do a deal. But is anyone listening in the La La Land that rules in Westminster and Whitehall? 

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Monday 27 March 2017 10:57 BST
Sir James Dyson is confident about Brexit, but others aren't so sanguine
Sir James Dyson is confident about Brexit, but others aren't so sanguine

In the red corner: Sir James Dyson, the billionaire businessman who manufactures most of his product in the in the Far East, twittering about how “enormously optimistic” he is about post Brexit trade.

In the blue corner: the British Retail Consortium, the Food & Drink Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Wine & Spirits Trade Association (WSTA), the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF).

With the Government prepared to embark upon one of history’s greatest mistakes, they appear scared witless by the prospect of the UK “going it alone” without a trade deal. And they are right to be.

Sir James probably has more name recognition than that lot combined. He’s a celebrity businessman, a rare British superstar, the creator of a superbrand that is sold around the world.

However, Brexit related disruption isn't likely to hurt him too much. His product is shipped from Asia, after all. He has even been looking for engineers out there.

It's very different for most of the companies operating in the above industries, which collectively employ vastly more people and represent a huge chunk of the British economy. They have an awful lot more to lose if the Government's threat to walk away from the EU without a deal is acted upon.

Let’s take the first three trade bodies for starters. In a joint statement they point out that the UK food supply chain employs 3.9m people, and generates £108bn of value.

While much of it is domestically based, they make plain that “we cannot operate in isolation”. They all of them need imports (farms, for example, need feed for livestock) and they all want to be able to export their product.

At the very least, they want transitional trade agreements to be sort out to allow time to negotiate new deals that will give them access to the markets they need without the imposition of damaging new tariffs.

Then there are the manufacturers. The EEF points to a poll of its members, some 82 per cent of which said it makes no sense for the UK to cut itself off from its biggest market (that would be the European single market). It also points to another poll that found just 5 per cent of British adults were willing to accept that loss or damage to UK manufacturing is a price worth paying for leaving the EU.

“I struggle at the idea of dismantling what is the best free trade agreement in the world,” chief executive Terry Scuoler said, warning that the imposition of post Brexit tariffs on British goods will hit business (and therefore jobs) hard.

Then there is the WSTA. It's worried about customs, and the impact of Brexit at Britain's ports.

“If Brexit talks don’t achieve frictionless borders, delays and gridlocks at ports will encourage the resurgence of alcohol smugglers," it warns.

But it's not just smugglers. The WSTA is concerned that the creation of a massive lorry park could be the result of cutting Britain off from the single market and customs union.

Such an event would strangle its industry, but it's not just the WSTA's members that would be hurt. Hey, Kent residents, did you think “Operation Stack” was bad? Better get ready for an even bigger party then!

I’d say that at least mobile cafes will do ok in serving the poor lorry drivers caught up in the mess. But they’ll still have to find a way to get to the potentially vast new market that may be created for them. And better hope that the food industry's fears don't come to pass. You’re not going to be selling bacon sandwiches if the pig farmers can’t get feed in.

That is what you call the law of unintended consequences.

Sir James might be optimistic. But the above are realistic assessments of what might occur if Government ministers continue to talk and act like spoiled children by threatening to stomp off in a huff if they don’t get their way with the EU.

So obsessed have they become with the supposed Shangri-La that they want you to believe will emerge from their project, so in hock to the fantasies of the Brexit backing media, they either appear not to have noticed, or to care, about what’s at stake here.

Their pat response boils down to something like this: “It’ll be great! When we’re free of the Euro meanies, and the world’s biggest single market, we’ll be doing stacks of trade deals. They’re queuing up to sign with us. The British Empire will be back, and here, we’ll even let you buy shares in the Dutch East India company if you want. We’ll stick a couple of guns on a new Royal Yacht Britannia to sort out any natives that get restless. Everyone sing God Save the Queen!”

Meanwhile, anyone who criticises the Brexit project is dismissed as, at best, a jeremiah, at worst as some sort of latter day quisling, with the BBC in pole position. If we shout loudly enough and bully the Beeb, then everyone will believe us!

Well, it seems a bevy of trade associations from hugely important parts of the British economy, haven't been drinking the Kool Aid.

At the moment, they’re keeping it polite. They’re talking about the importance of an “orderly Brexit”. They’re making sure they use the word “opportunities” when it comes to post Brexit trade. They have to do that to get a hearing from Brexit dominated departments whose ministers have shown a disturbing tendency to trade in threats.

But the truth is, they’re worried. I’m sorry to say, they’re right to be and they might yet have to drop the medium civil tone as Theresa May's Titanic sails disturbingly close to what looks like a very, very big iceberg.

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