What is becoming increasingly clear is that this political timescale is being overtaken by the timescale of economics and business. This week, five groups representing British business wrote to the government urging an early agreement to a transitional agreement on, effectively, status quo terms – which would mean many of the things that are red lines for the Brexit ultras, including ECJ jurisdiction. It’s a mark of how strange British politics has become that a Tory government regards these business groups as peripherally relevant or even, for the Brexit Jacobins in the Tory Party, just another group of saboteurs who don’t share the true faith.
But faith doesn’t really cut it when it comes to investment decisions, and whilst the Cabinet have reportedly not discussed what future trade terms the government will seek with the EU (even whilst insisting that the EU must start trade talks immediately) for fear of the splits it will reveal, businesses are obliged to make those decisions. For example, supermarket chains faced with the possibility of lengthy customs checks need to decide very soon on investments in new refrigeration facilities. For airlines, the crunch point of selling post-March 2019 seats is coming in March 2018. And before long, farmers are going to have to make decisions about what crops to plant.
Brexiters don’t understand any of this, partly because very few of them know anything about modern business practice. Very few business people support Brexit – it’s telling that only three have really had a significant profile: James Dyson, JCB boss Lord Bamford and Tim Martin of Wetherspoon. The first two of these have had massive legal disputes with the EU, with JCB suffering a hefty fine for anti-competitive practices, whilst Wetherspoon does not export and is highly reliant on EU migrant labour.
At all events, we’re now getting to the point of no return as regards business decisions. For some, the point is already passed. Internet entrepreneur Jean Meyer is moving his company from London to Paris having “lost track of the number of developers, marketing managers or data scientists who refused to join us following the Brexit vote”. On a bigger scale, the strategically vital pharma industry is getting very alarmed: “will we be able to do everything on time? Probably not” said one senior manager of Merck, a leading player.
Brexiters dismissed the warnings of business as ‘Project Fear’ before the referendum, and since then have dishonestly pretended that since the warnings did not come true the day after (which they did, in fact, as regards sterling) then they will never do so. But the situation now is quite clear: businesses are not investing and are beginning to leave. Jon Worth wrote an excellent blog this week arguing that politically ‘something has got to give’. That’s true, but when it does it is likely only to increase the political uncertainty around Brexit. Which will only accelerate disinvestment. And businesses which leave now won’t come back, whatever subsequently happens with Brexit.
Beyond all the business issues, it’s crucial to remember that uncertainty bites very hard upon individuals, especially EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU-27 but also people who may be thinking of moving to work, study or retire in other countries. Many of these people are facing decisions without any real way of knowing on what basis to make them: decisions about themselves but also about, say, their children’s schooling. Literally millions of people who, quite reasonably, have built their lives on a presumption of UK membership of the EU are having those lives wrecked and having to make decisions, whilst the meaning of Brexit cannot be defined even by those who most assiduously campaigned for it. Those decisions, like those of businesses, are also being made right now and won’t easily be revoked.
Formally, Brexit happens in March 2019. For many businesses and individuals it is happening right now. Is there anything on the other side of the coin? Are there any businesses or individuals investing in or coming to Britain because of Brexit? No. That is an extraordinary fact so it's worth repeating: there is not one single business investment that has been announced as a result of Brexit.