Brexit: Theresa May tries to repair damaged relations with business leaders after economic warnings

Prime minister on mission to mend fences - amid growing Tory alarm that some ministers are 'business bashing' in battle over EU departure

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
@Rob_Merrick
Tuesday 26 June 2018 18:32
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What could the sticking points be in the Brexit trade deal?

Theresa May has sought to repair damaged relations with business leaders after some cabinet ministers dismissed their stark warnings of economic harm from Brexit.

The government would “always listen to your voice and back you every step of the way”, the prime minister insisted, speaking to chief executives.

However, Ms May declined to say if she had reprimanded Boris Johnson who all but admitted he said “f*** business” after bosses spoke out about chaotic preparations for leaving the EU.

She embarked on a mission to mend fences amid growing Tory alarm that some ministers are resorting to “business bashing” in order to hold the line on Brexit.

It came as car manufacturers echoed warnings that thousands of jobs are at risk unless the government rethinks its red lines in negotiations, to soften the exit deal.

“A Conservative government will always listen to your voice and back you every step of the way as you help grow our economy and create more good jobs,” the prime minister pledged.

And she added: “We have listened carefully to the voices of business throughout, and your input has helped to shape our negotiating position.

“Our goal – a deep and special partnership that ensures trade remains as free and frictionless as possible and allows established patterns of trade to continue without disruption – is ambitious but it is achievable, because it is in the mutual interest of the UK and the EU.”

However, the prime minister admitted, for the first time, that there would be problems with flights to and from the EU, if no agreement could be reached.

“Now, what happens if it were the case that there were no deal? Obviously, there are certain things like flights and so forth where there would have to be negotiations that take place in other environments,” she said.

Traditionally close Tory links with business leaders have taken a battering as more of them go public with their fears of a disastrous no-deal outcome.

In the starkest warning yet, the car lobby told ministers that it needs “as a minimum” to remain in the customs union and a deal that delivers “single market benefits”.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said Brexit uncertainty was thwarting investment and called for customs union membership until the government came up with a “credible plan B”.

Speaking at The Times CEO summit, Ms May acknowledged that a no-deal on Brexit would mean reverting to World Trade Organisation rules, without a trade agreement.

But she insisted the EU wanted to come to a deal with the UK – arguing that “what matters” is the behind-the-scenes negotiations, rather than the public position being taken by Brussels.

The prime minister also stressed the importance of business ties between the UK and the US, ahead of the visit of Donald Trump’s controversial visit next month.

“This is an important relationship that has at its heart our defence and security relationship with a significant ally,” she added.

In the Commons, asked about his alleged “f*** business” remark, Mr Johnson told MPs: “It may be that, from time to time, I express scepticism about those professing to speak up for business.”

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