'F*ck business'? OK, Boris, but what then?

James Murray
'F*ck business'? OK, Boris, but what then?

Progressive businesses understand that Boris Johnson's version of Brexit runs counter to both their mission and the requirements of the 21st century

"Fuck business". How the hell did we get here? As the FT's Robert Shrimsley observed last week "never was the Brexit manifesto more succinctly captured than in Boris Johnson's impromptu aside... Hell, it's even shorter than 'take back control'". The 'party of business', or at least an influential wing of it, is now the party of "fuck business".

"Fuck business". The phrase - its origins still undenied by the Foreign Secretary - not only reveals the Hard Brexiters' cavalier contempt for the business community and the millions of people it employs, it also has a painful double meaning that Labour's Mary Creagh deftly highlighted at Prime Minister's Questions last week. "Will the PM join me in congratulating the Foreign Secretary in expressing so pithily what her hard Brexit will do to British jobs and British businesses?" she asked. Needless to say the Prime Minister may have welcomed the sentiment - and all the noise from Number 10 suggests she is well aware of what indignities will befall business should Johnson get his way - but she still couldn't bring herself to either congratulate or condemn the Foreign Secretary.

"Fuck business". For those businesses who are now presumably preparing, at the Foreign Secretary's behest, to be "fucked", nerves are starting to fray, and understandably so. The hostility towards any business leader wise and brave enough to spell out precisely what a Hard Brexit means is escalating and there is no end to it in sight. The risk of a catastrophic no deal Brexit is still far too high for anyone to feel comfortable, while the best case scenario appears to have been downgraded to such a point that the avoidance of riots and food shortages coupled with another decade of grinding austerity and sluggish growth will be seen in many quarters as a triumphant win.

There are two over-arching reasons for businesses to be worried: one short to medium-term and well documented, the other long term and much less widely acknowledged.

The obvious concern is that two years on from the referendum result and nearly 18 months on from Article 50 being triggered, the government's negotiating strategy and ideal end Brexit state remains a mystery. It is antithetical to good investment planning and there is only so long businesses can nod along and continue to green light new projects when they have little idea what the policy and regulatory landscape will look like from next year.

Every attempt at conciliatory reassurance offered by Philip Hammond, Greg Clark, and even Michael Gove, is torpedoed within hours by the latest self-indulgent missive from Jacob Rees-Mogg and the 50 or so Hard Brexit MPs who seem to revel in the prospect of crashing the economy and taking down a Prime Minister in the process.

At the same time, Brexit has become so all-consuming that every other aspect of the government's policy agenda and economic strategy is subordinated to it. Even policies that are supposedly a defining priority for the government, such as the Clean Growth Strategy, Road to Zero transport plan, 25 Year Environment Plan, and wider Industrial Strategies, edge forward with all the pace and vigour of an asthmatic snail.

Where Brexit-related progress is promised, such as through Gove's CAP-reforming 'Green Brexit' the tempestuous nature of both the cabinet and wider talks mean nothing the government proposes is bankable. Gove lauds bans on unnecessary plastics and measures to tackle air pollution, and his predecessor as Environment Secretary Liz Truss mocks him in public and signals her desire for yet another deregulatory drive. Defra wants a tough post-Brexit watchdog, and the Treasury says 'you can't have one'.

Above all the fractiousness looms the realisation the UK-EU negotiations could fall apart if neither side budges on its red lines or if Rees-Mogg and his cronies launch the challenge against the Prime Minister they are clearly angling for. Assurances of a 'Green Brexit' are like getting an offer on a house the week before Brexit day, it's nice, but I wouldn't go spending the money until it is in your account.

"Fuck business"? When you consider the investments delayed and foregone and the man hours expended thanks to this wilful, full spectrum exercise in opacity, businesses would be forgiven for thinking they have been screwed with by unreliable men who should know better quite enough already, thank you.

Yet the hope remains that a route can be navigated through the choppy Brexit waters, that heads will be knocked together at this week's latest Cabinet showdown, that the Brexit blowhards on the backbenches will eventually be told to 'do one' by Number 10, that the electorate will make it blindingly clear that no one voted for economic chaos, that a workable deal will be done and any resulting disruption will be manageable.

The problem is that even under this best of best case scenarios the second fear crystallised by Boris' outburst remains.

"Fuck business" lays bare a schism between the business community and the supposed 'Party of business' that is long running, but has been widening rapidly in recent years. Even before the Brexit vote the 'slash red tape', 'roll back the state', 'cut the green crap', 'red in tooth and claw' brand of conservatism was increasingly distant from a business community that has been infused, albeit with varying degrees of strength, with progressive values.

Many of the world's largest, most successful, and most popular businesses now embrace a form of capitalism that is antithetical to the loudest laissez faire voices on the Conservative benches. They backed the Paris Agreement before the world's governments and are working to accelerate the deep decarbonisation of the global economy. They tend to understand the importance of effective regulation in the public interest. They want to deliver a fourth industrial revolution driven by clean technologies and circular business models, and they were recently told by the boss of the world's largest asset manager that they need to find a "purpose" or risk losing investor backing.

Of course, it is important to note this is a generalisation. There are still plenty of regressive businesses out there wedded to a narrow understanding of capitalism and a dismissive attitude towards the natural world and wider society. There are also businesses out there that thrive on instability and chaos. At this point it is worth noting that so many of the people who funded both the Leave campaign and the Conservative Party are from the world of hedge funds - an elite that is to true business leadership as bookmakers are to star footballers.  

To confuse matters still further, there are businesses that embrace progressive values one minute and shun them the next. You would be hard pushed to find a sector with a more ambitious and all-encompassing approach to climate action than the titans of Silicon Valley. They invest billions in renewable energy and are at the heart of the smart city revolution. And yet many of them, when asked to pay their fair share towards governments' climate efforts, pursue tax policies that would shame Leona Helmsley. Similarly, Europe's largest oil majors and Europe's largest electric vehicle infrastructure providers are now precisely the same companies, creating an internal tension that is going to make for a fascinating new lobbying dynamic.

However, even when these caveats are considered it is crucial to remember Kurt Vonnegut's timeless quote: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." By and large the biggest and best businesses are pretending to be part of a form of capitalism that is broadly progressive, that recognises the importance of environmental and social impacts, that understands the existential threat presented by climate change, that gets effective regulation benefits markets, that acknowledges they gain from having a purpose that extends beyond financial short termism. It goes without saying this is a world view that is diametrically opposed to that embodied by the Hard Brexiters.

This 'green' and 'fluffy' stuff is anathema to Boris, Rees-Mogg, and co. And that's fine. As some commentators have noted, it is debatable whether the Conservative Party should aspire to be the "Party of Business" when business is equated with a 'globalist' corporate elite. It may make them sound like they have more in common with Jeremy Corbyn's Labour than either side would admit (although, whisper it, on a raft of issues from climate change to education Corbyn and co are closer to the business mainstream than Rees-Mogg and his outriders), but they are both right to say no political party should be captured by business. And yet if the Hard Brexiters want to distance themselves from executives and entrepreneurs, if they want to "fuck business", then they should stop using the few corporate dinosaurs they can find to argue their regressive, anti-environmental, short-termist policies are 'pro business'. They are nothing of the sort. 

The worry for business and thoughtful Conservatives alike is "fuck business" lays bare the scale of schism and the fact it is not about to be bridged any time soon.

Because progressive business understands Boris and his allies are wedded to a late 20th ideology and economic model that is now as much use as a fax machine in an Apple store (and which, to be honest, wasn't even that much use when it was in vogue). They understand society, technology, and economics are changing far faster than politicians recognise and know that new business models are urgently needed to tackle the challenges and opportunities presented by the 21st century, the creation of a net zero emission economy within four decades being chief amongst them.

Because progressive business instinctively understands the chain of events unleashed by David Cameron and Boris Johnson has left the UK with no good options left available. A scenario where a Hard Brexit, or even worse a no deal Brexit, threatens an economic crash and lost decade that would make the fallout from the 2008 crisis look like a slightly disappointing wet Bank Holiday weekend. It would deliver an endless austerity that would only further fuel the dislocation and anti-migrant sentiments that gave rise to the referendum result in the first place, and which would inevitably create a breeding ground for hard right nationalism. Yet at the same time it is also a scenario where any attempt to reverse the referendum result, even through a second referendum, risks a complete implosion of trust in the political process that would unleash its own form of instability, and which would inevitably create a breeding ground for hard right nationalism.

And because progressive business understands what Boris's over-weaning pride refuses to let him accept: that faced with these extreme bad choices the only option is to try and split the difference. To deliver the only outcome that minimises economic damage, has a meaningful mandate, and is compatible with the creation of a modern economy that tackles the challenges of the 21st century. That is a soft Brexit, the Norway option, the deal the EU will offer and the one that satisfies both the requirement to leave the EU and the necessity to retain close trading links with our closest partners. The scenario that could satisfy many of the 52 per cent who voted to leave, offer an olive branch to the 48 per cent who wanted to remain, and leave the Hard Brexiters where they were to begin with, as a fringe that should never have been allowed to laud it over a government trying to act in the national interest. 

This would inevitably spark howls of 'betrayal' and risk both a political crisis and a nationalist resurgence. But so would every scenario from here.  Like I say there are no good options. That is what Cameron and Johnson have left us with.

Yes, some changes may be required to exert some additional control over migration, but these options are available within the Norway model. Yes, the UK would end up as a rule taker, but as businesses have made plain, those rules are not half as onerous as the Brexiters believe, and in many cases they are in the UK's interest to enact. Yes, there would be costs and disruption, but the UK would gain control over agricultural and fisheries policy, be free of the principles of ever closer political union, and still retain access to the world's largest market as it seeks to transition to a low carbon, sustainable future capable of defending the rules-based international order from the nihilistic forces of Trumpism and Putinism.

Fuck business, Boris? We'd really rather you didn't.

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