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Brexit Past, Present and Future

Our Director of Policy and Marketing speaks to our most recent Chamber's Presidents about one of the most important issues of our history: Brexit!

There’s been very few long-running issues like Brexit that have seemed to have developed a life of their own and which have completely dominated not just the business environment but, it seems, everything that we do. Since the EU Referendum in June 2016 the Chamber has had three Presidents, Wayne Jones OBE, Jane Boardman and, newly-elected in October this year, Robin Phillips.

So, recognising the time of year and trying my best to channel Charles Dickens in the spirit of “A Christmas Carol” I took on the role of Scrooge and took the opportunity with our Presidents to revisit Brexit past, look at Brexit present and see if we could work out Brexit future……

First up was Wayne Jones OBE, who not only had the referendum in his term but two general elections and a mayoral election…never a dull moment!

“My Presidency was eventful for many reasons but of course the decision on 23 June 2016 to leave the EU after forty-three years will be remembered for a lifetime. After the shock of the decision where 52% of the 30 million people voted in favour of leaving, which is around one quarter of our population, we were in a new chapter of our political history. Looking back, I think it is quite honestly the worst example of campaigning for both Remain and Leave that we have ever seen, people had limited information on which way to vote and immigration seemed to be at the forefront of all major debates. Brexit is much more than immigration.

“The topic was a major focus at the Chamber Assembly meetings where we tried to guide our membership on what could happen next, but looking back, we never had a chance to predict the drama over the forthcoming years! At this time we had lively debates as the topic was critical to the business community and like nothing we had ever encountered before. In the EU, we benefit from the free movement of goods, capital and human resources across the 28 member states. The key questions then were how will this change, when will this change and what is the economic impact of the change? More than three years later, are we any wiser?

“From my perspective as a previous GMCC President and an Executive Board Member of MAN Energy Solutions, part of the VW Group, it remains to be seen the true impact of this decision on our economy, our culture and our society. One thing is for sure, we will continue to hear about it and it will have an impact on the entire world and our future generations.”

Succeeding Wayne was Jane Boardman from Deloitte who took over as President in October 2017 and even then the fatigue was starting to set in…..

“When I stepped into the (very big) shoes of Wayne Jones to take over as GMCC President in 2017, in the wake of the EU referendum, a new Prime Minister in Teresa May, and a general election resulting in the Tory tie-up with the DUP, Wayne and I joked about how he’d presided over all the fun and it would be plain sailing for me with just the small matter of ‘the easiest negotiation in the human history’ (per Liam Fox), the Brexit withdrawal agreement, to be finalised.

“At that point the Chamber Assembly was already starting to tire of Brexit discussions, and we made a conscious decision, as the delays and extensions continued, to put Brexit on the back burner and focus on things that we could affect, things that were impacting on GM businesses, and that devolution was giving us increased ability to influence and change. Transport, Skills, Environment…all topics that we have debated at length at Assembly in the last 12 months, all critical to the effective functioning of business and community, all currently playing second fiddle in Whitehall to the ongoing Brexit posturing of senior politicians.

“Well I for one am incredibly pleased and proud that here at GMCC we haven’t let Brexit distract us. We have lobbied for, and driven, change in the apprenticeship levy. We are building a skills strategy for GM. We have provided valuable input into the integrated transport plans for GM. And we have kept Brexit in our peripheral vision, making sure that the voices of GM businesses are heard over the parliamentary hubbub.

“Who knows when Brexit will happen, and what withdrawal, let alone ongoing trade agreements will look like. Maybe Robin will be shaking his head, handing over to his successor, still wondering…let’s hope not. One thing I’ve learned in my career so far is that uncertainty is not good for business.”

Finally and the Chamber’s most recent President, Robin Phillips of Siemens who had to face a very quick change of direction away from Brexit (for now) and into full-on election mode.

“In line with how the whole Brexit issue has played out so far within two weeks of my election as President, the country wasn’t gripped in the aftermath of leaving the EU but instead found itself gearing up for a General Election. Nothing like being thrown in at the deep end. Looking back now, maybe Jane did have the less turbulent term of office? Only time will tell.

“There’s no doubt that Brexit will continue to loom large over the coming weeks but it is important that we use this opportunity to bring forward the work done by Jane and Wayne, and which I fully intend to continue, in setting out and getting clarity over those domestic issues that impact on everyday business and that have been relegated to the background over the last three years.

“In a way the path we’ve taken at Assembly over the last few years and the actions we’ve done almost synchronise with what has actually played out in real life. Starting off with high hopes and interest in Brexit, a dawning realisation that things may take longer than thought, concern that domestic issues were being increasingly ignored and a switch in priorities to put the day to day business issues above the quagmire of Brexit. We probably are in the best prepared position for a number of years for knowing what our members want and what we will be asking for from whoever forms the next government.

“So whilst the next few months will be interesting and challenging – don’t forget Brexit still needs sorting out - and with the GM mayoral elections in May, at all levels of politics the need to get the views of business across is more important than ever and, come what may, I’m proud to be President of the Chamber and look forward to whatever lies ahead!”

So three years and three Presidents later, it still doesn’t feel like any end is in sight. If, as they say, a week is a long time in politics – three years and six months of Brexit is starting to feel like an eternity.

In the real Christmas Carol at least old Scrooge had the salvation of waking up on Christmas Day and all his worries were resolved. Oh for such a simple solution.

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