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When you hear business leaders talk about no-deal Brexit ‘uncertainty’, this is what they actually mean

If business continues to use mild and inoffensive words to describe the dramatic situation we face, they will inevitably be seized upon and manipulated by the likes of Sajid Javid for their own ends

James Moore
Thursday 05 September 2019 11:50 BST
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“A small chink of light for business,” is how the CBI described the parliamentary Rebel Alliance’s bill to block this gangster government’s brutally destructive no-deal Brexit.

Director general Carolyn Fairbairn went on to say this: “With an election looming, many remain deeply concerned about the ongoing impact of uncertainty on the economy.”

There’s that word again.

Its persistent use exposes a deep flaw at the heart of the business community’s messaging on Brexit, and no deal in particular. Why? Because the response of someone who’s not been closely following this deeply depressing saga might go something like this: “Doesn’t more delay just mean more of the uncertainty you guys keep banging on about?”

Chancellor Sajid Javid may have become his mafiosi bosses’ mendacious nodding dog, but while he’s clearly sacrificed his principles (look back at his comments on suspending parliament if you want evidence) for a ministerial red box he’s still a clever man.

He slyly played to that argument a couple of weeks after being handed the job when he said: “We're determined to provide certainty on Brexit – we are clear the UK is leaving EU by 31 October.”

Javid is surely well aware that if that means no deal it will do nothing of the sort because he’ll have seen all the assessments of the consequences that the government is too scared to publish.

No deal will turn a gale force wind of “uncertainty” into a record breaking hurricane that will last for months, more likely years. Decades even.

The problem is, if you tell the truth in front of Dom Dominic Cummings and Don Boris Johnson - I still can’t work out which of them is the boss and which is the under boss - you get shot. Metaphorically (at least for the moment).

Javid’s cowardice stands in terribly stark contrast to the bravery of his predecessor turned Rebel Alliance leader Philip Hammond.

But the knowledge of that doesn’t help the business community counter the false narrative the government’s muck spreaders are spraying all over the country.

The addiction to neutral sounding words and phrases such as “uncertainty” is understandable to a certain degree. Every time a CEO opens their mouth, their statements are put under an electron microscope by a battery of analysts and journalists. Regulators too. The statements of those who lead public companies are governed by strict rules and the penalties for falling foul of them can be severe, particularly in the US.

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This, combined with the desire not to offend existing or potential customers, helps to explain why businesses regularly default to bland buzz, even to the extent of making themselves look very silly.

At one stage I found myself wondering which retailer would be the first to describe shops as “customer solutions outlets”. It’s frequently a struggle to work out what it is that some companies actually do, especially in the tech sector.

Lobby groups such as the CBI exist to say things they can’t, or won’t, but this culture still feeds through to the way these mouthpieces express themselves. Hence “uncertainty” when what they really mean (and will tell you off the record) is that it’s “a godawful mess” that will “get a hell of a lot worse if the idiot in Number Ten gets his way”. Or words to that effect.

This needs to end because if business continues to use mild and inoffensive words to describe the situation we face, they will inevitably be seized upon and manipulated by the likes of Javid.

Earlier this week I wrote about a notable exception to the rule. It came courtesy of the British Retail Consortium, which delivered a searing rebuke to no deal planning chief Michael Gove in response to his pooh poohing the possibility of fresh food shortages.

“It is categorically untrue that the supply of fresh food will be unaffected under a no-deal Brexit,” the trade body declared, in refreshingly plain English.

Other business groups and business leaders would do well to read and reflect upon its statement. This is no time to be tip toeing around and playing nice with the government in the hope of getting “a hearing”. Javid’s statements make it clear that it is only willing to hear what it wants to.

Business leaders should make a start by resolving to excise the word “uncertainty” for their vocabulary.

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