The clock is ticking. In the House of Commons, MPs spend hours debating points of parliamentary procedure, but are unwilling to take real decisions about our country’s future. Negotiations between the prime minister and EU leaders seem to have reached an impasse. But in the real world, businesses are at breaking point.
I know from my own business career that – above all – what business needs is certainty. Certainty about the terms on which they will be able to sell products and services to our largest export market. Certainty about their ability to import the parts and raw materials they need without costly tariffs and delays. And above all, the certainty that they need to invest in the UK, to create the high-quality, high-skilled jobs we need to meet the economic challenges of the future.
The need for action is urgent. Every day, businesses tell me of the challenges they face. Our manufacturers are stockpiling at the fastest rate for 27 years – tying up capital that could otherwise be used for research, training or investment. Manufacturers are being forced to ship orders for delivery after Brexit day without knowing what paperwork to use or what tariffs might be payable. And our retailers are warning of food shortages and price rises. It’s little wonder that the Institute of Directors reports that a third of businesses are preparing to move some or all of their work to the EU, and that the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders tells us that investment in the automotive sector has slumped by 47%, while car production is at its lowest for five years.
But businesses don’t have the option to cross their fingers and hope it will be all right on the night. Every day that goes by without answers to these questions accelerates the flow of investment, jobs and economic activity out of the country – and to the EU.
This is why it is vital that this issue is settled when parliament next considers it on 14 February. It is time that MPs stopped ducking their responsibility to take decisions – telling the government what they don’t want, but not what they could support. Given the importance of the question, and the divisiveness of the debate, we need to reassure citizens and businesses that we have found a sustainable way forward.
We can only do this by coming together around an outcome that commands a significant majority in the House. And if that is not possible, we have to grasp the nettle of an extended article 50 period, taking a no-deal Brexit off the table to allow time for discussions to continue.
I understand the concerns of some MPs about being seen to delay or frustrate Brexit. And I know that, for others, they just want to “get on with it”. But however bracing the prospect of instant liberation from the EU may feel in abstract, that sentiment won’t last long when confronted with the economic, legal and practical reality. In the chaos that followed no deal, voters would turn on the Tory party, and rightly so.
So it is time to focus on what in the end matters most – supporting growth and jobs in the UK. This government, through our industrial strategy, has acknowledged the challenges we face and set out a clear plan to deal with them.
A no-deal Brexit would undermine all our efforts. It would entrench this country’s social and economic divisions, not heal them. And it would turn a crisis into a catastrophe. That is why, on 14 February, just a week on Thursday, parliament needs to rule it out once and for all.
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