The announcement that British Steel is to enter insolvency is the latest example of how uncertainty over Brexit is threatening livelihoods across the country. This does not just affect the 5,000 workers at Scunthorpe, but also a support staff of 20,000 across the whole supply chain.
Sadly, many other firms face the same danger because of Brexit and the loss of European customers who are uncertain about future trading relations. One recent estimate put the economic damage Brexit has already inflicted on the UK at £600m a week. Try sticking that on the side of a bus.
Meanwhile, leading business groups, including the British Chambers of Commerce, expect the economy to remain weak throughout this year as investment stutters, while major manufacturers from Airbus to BMW warn that a no-deal scenario could well force them to move operations and jobs abroad.
Far from the quick and easy exit that Leave campaigners once promised, Brexit has become mired in its own internal contradictions. Theresa May’s negotiations with the EU have given way to a protracted civil war within the Tory party. The whole farce continues to act as a major drag on our economy and a threat to people’s jobs.
The best that leading Brexiteers can now tell us is that Brexit won’t be as bad as the Second World War. Hardly a comfort for people who have lost their job or a ringing endorsement for what these same politicians once told us would be the catalyst for a stronger economy and brighter future for our country.
The Liberal Democrats have a simple solution to the mess that has now rocked British Steel. We are backing the one deal with the EU that allows unhindered trade, gives the UK a strong voice in setting the rules and enables us to opt out in areas where we choose to go our own way. That is the deal we currently enjoy as full members of the European Union.
That is why the Liberal Democrats are campaigning unashamedly in the European elections to stop Brexit – a message that is gaining traction with voters, as the latest polls clearly show. With both the Tories and Labour locked in a deadly embrace and struggling to find a way forward, these elections are an opportunity to show that the national mood has shifted in favour of ending the Brexit shambles once and for all. An opportunity to keep the UK as a leading force in the EU, shaping its future with our MEPs sitting at the table.
However, even if Brexit is stopped, action will still be needed to repair the lasting damage to the UK economy that has been inflicted over the past three years. The Lib Dems are therefore calling for the creation of a £7.5bn Brexit support fund to mitigate job losses caused by Brexit uncertainty.
That money would support workers who have been made redundant or who are at risk of losing their jobs as businesses leave the UK, close down or downsize. It would offer advice and retraining to help them into new jobs, similar to the EU’s globalisation adjustment fund, which provides careers advice, mentoring and training to workers when a business loses over 500 employees.
Alternatively, the fund could be used to provide grants to struggling businesses to help them protect jobs and create new ones, building on the success of the regional growth fund the Lib Dems established in government, which the Conservatives promptly scrapped in 2016.
By stopping Brexit, investing in skills and providing tailored support to key industries, we can get the UK economy back on track and help the communities that have been hit hardest by the threat of Brexit. Removing the spectre of uncertainty would also allow us to focus on the real long-term challenges facing the economy: low productivity, regional imbalances and harnessing the opportunity of emerging technologies.
In future decades, people will no doubt struggle to comprehend how the UK ended up wasting years on a damaging attempt to leave the world’s most successful trading bloc, at a time when we already had real challenges to tackle.
Every day we let this Brexit mess go on means less money being invested in the UK, fewer jobs being created and less tax revenue to pay for our public services. As the world’s nations compete for leadership in the technologies of the future, from clean energy to artificial intelligence, the UK risks being left on the sidelines.
The tragedy is that this situation, with British Steel and across the economy, is entirely self-inflicted. While some Brexiteers are willing to accept the loss of these jobs is a price worth paying, the Lib Dems certainly do not. The good news is that it’s not too late to make the difference by stopping Brexit.
Jo Swinson is the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for East Dunbartonshire
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