Wishful thinking dominates Brexit debate as the UK heads towards No Deal on 31 October

One of the best things I learned at school was the simple mnemonic:

“To ASSUME can make an ASS of U and ME”

Unfortunately, most of those involved in the UK’s Brexit debate have failed to remember it.  As a result, it seems likely that the UK will end up leaving the European Union on 31 October with No Deal.

The problem comes down to the set of false assumptions summarised in the slide above:

  • Don’t worry, history shows the UK won both the Battle of Waterloo and World War 2 by small margins – the Prussians arrived just in time to help win the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and Hitler called off the Battle of Britain just before the RAF ran out of aircraft and pilots in 1940
  • The terms of the Withdrawal Agreement were only a bluff. German auto manufacturers will never allow their UK sales to be jeopardised.  And countries such as France, Italy and Spain will soon reverse course once they realise they might lose their UK tourist income
  • Everybody knows that Parliament would never allow a No Deal Brexit to take place, and so there’s no need to actually make the case for why it might be a disaster. After all, the Speaker said last week that he would probably allow an emergency debate if it ever looked likely
  • Company chiefs in favour of Leave have been prominent in the Brexit debate, but bosses who favour Remain would risk upsetting Leave customers if they did the same.  And anyway, everybody knows that in the end, someone will appear with a magic wand to make everything end happily

These are all arguments that have been heard everyday for the past 3 years.  The problem is that they are simply wishful thinking, and yet are never challenged.

The success of the Brexit Party in the European elections makes it almost certain that the next Tory leader will be a hard-line Brexiter.  As the chart shows from YouGov polling, most Conservative Party members (who will make the final decision) actually voted for the Brexit Party rather than the Conservatives in the election.

Similarly, it seems highly likely that No Deal will be the base case for most Tory leadership hopefuls.  And the position of Boris Johnson as front-runner is very clear, as the Leave.UK poster confirms.

Given that the leadership election is already underway, we also know how events will likely play out:

  • The new Tory leader will be elected in July, ahead of everyone’s summer holidays in August
  • Brussels will quickly refuse their demand to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement
  • The new premier will dismiss this as bluff during September and at the Party Conference
  • The UK will then leave the EU without a deal on 31 October

After that, either the new EU Commission will make a hurried phone call, saying it is all a terrible mistake.  Or the UK will find that 31 October was just “the end of the beginning”, and will instead start the lengthy process of negotiating a free trade agreement – whilst the EU implements their Preparations for a No Deal Brexit..

THE TIMETABLE FOR AVOIDING NO DEAL IS VERY SHORT
The key issue, as the independent Institute for Government (IfG) has noted, is that:

“A new prime minister intent on No Deal Brexit can’t be stopped by MPs.”

It is also clear from recent statements from Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, that he continues to regard a second referendum as very much a last resort, as The Guardian reported last week:

“Speaking in Dublin, the Labour leader said the only way to break the deadlock would be a general election or a second referendum after negotiating a softer Brexit deal with Brussels.”

Corbyn knows very well that a new Tory premier is most unlikely to seek a “softer Brexit deal”, and he also knows that it would be impossible to negotiate a new deal before 31 October.  It would be almost impossible even to organise a General Election before 31 October, as the IfG have also explained:

  • The election would have to be held by 24 October, as  the UK will otherwise leave by default on 31 October under the terms of the extension agreed under last June’s Withdrawal Act
  • The Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) means the government would have to lose a second vote of confidence by 16 September to allow 25 days for campaigning, and 2 days for “wash-up” (deciding which bills can become law before dissolution)
  • The FTPA also mandates 2 separate votes of confidence, with a 14 day gap – so the 1st vote has to be held by 2 September ie the day that Parliament probably returns from its summer holidays

This tight timetable also raises an unanswered question as to when the vote of confidence would actually be tabled, if parliament is in recess?

Wishful thinking and wrong assumptions have dominated the Brexit debate. So there is little reason to assume anything will now stop the UK leaving on 31 October, in time for Halloween celebrations.

Afterwards, of course, everyone will be free to blame everyone else for “not making it clear what would happen”.  But that is always the result when wishful thinking is involved.

Most businesses were nowhere near Ready for Brexit last Friday – we mustn’t make the same mistake again

Thank goodness for backbench MPs and the European Union. Without their efforts, the UK would by now have left the EU without any trade deals, or ongoing relationship with it’s biggest export market.  And as the Duke of Wellington said in another context, “It was a damn close-run thing”:

  • In a historic vote, MPs decided by just 1 vote to force the government to ask for a longer extension
  • The EU Council argued into the night on its response, but decided to give the UK “a second chance”

The problem was well expressed in a tweet by former Brexit Secretary, David Davis, on Friday morning:

His tweet completely ignored the views of all the main business organisations and trade unions, who had spent weeks trying to point out that issuing government statements and Guidance Notes was not the same as actually being prepared, as The Guardian noted:

“Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, and Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI’s director-general, wrote last month before the crunch EU summit in Brussels: “Our country is facing a national emergency. Decisions of recent days have caused the risk of No Deal to soar. Firms and communities across the UK are not ready for this outcome. The shock to our economy would be felt by generations to come.””

On Friday, confirming their lack of understanding of business needs – and against the advice of senior civil servants – ministers decided to completely stand down No Deal preparations.  Yet as the independent Institute for Government have warned:

“Despite the delay, a No Deal exit is still very much on the table, either on 31 May or 31 October… Businesses and the public should not be left to read between the lines of individual departmental press notices.”

It is therefore critical that UK and EU27 businesses now take the opportunity of the extension to understand and prepare for the changes that will affect them if the UK does leave the EU.  For all the talk of a new referendum, this is still the law of the land.

Our surveys at Ready for Brexit have consistently shown that 80% of small businesses weren’t ready for Brexit. Some had stockpiled some essential goods, but only around one fifth had actually thought through a detailed plan.  As a result, many people have had sleepless nights in recent weeks as they realised the UK might well be leaving with No Deal.

Now that the UK has an extension, it is time to stop panicking and start preparing. None of us can afford to be complacent – No Deal remains the default position and businesses need to know how Brexit will affect them in key areas for their future:

  • Customs, Tariffs and Regulations.  No one has needed to fill out Customs Declarations for EU trade for 25 years. HMRC has warned that following Brexit, businesses may need to make 400 million Customs Declarations at an expected cost of £32.50 each. Compliance with Rules of Origin could easily cost more, if legal advice is needed. Companies need to identify how Customs and Regulatory requirements could impact their business and plan to put the correct procedures in place
  • Supply Chains.  Will your business be affected by interruptions in supply chains following Brexit? You need to audit your supply chain partners to identify potential weak links. It only takes one missing item to shut down a production line. And think about what may happen to your cash flow if forecast delays take place at the ports
  • Sales Agreements.  Do you have Material Change clauses in your commercial contracts?  You need to check out key areas such as your ability to pass on the costs of tariffs, customs delays and exchange rate movements, as well as the impact of possible regulatory changes. Governing contract law also needs checking as the UK will no longer be a member of the EU
  • Employment. You need to understand how the status of UK-employed EU citizens may change and check out the position of UK staff working temporarily or permanently in EU countries. Don’t forget basic areas such as whether professional qualifications obtained in the UK will still be valid in the EU after Brexit, and the possible need for international driving licences

We have all had a lucky escape in the past few days. But we can’t rely on our luck holding.  Planning now for whatever may happen in the next few months may well save you months of heartache later on.

This is why, with some highly experienced colleagues, I helped set up Ready for Brexit.  As I wrote here in June:

“We are particularly concerned that many small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) – the backbone of the European economy – are failing to plan ahead for Brexit’s potential impact.”

We can all hope that politicians now step back, and work together to avoid the disaster of a No Deal at the end of May or October.

But hope is not a strategy – particularly when the future of your business may be at stake.  If you need detailed help in the form of Brexit Checklists and planning tools, they are all there on the Ready for Brexit site.

 

Businesses thrilled by Brexit uncertainty: “It’s exhilarating” says small business owner

With the European Commission saying that a No Deal is now “likely“, small businesses across the UK and EU27 have begun to look forward to the opportunities that it will create, as this 1 April report from Ready for Brexit suggests.

Businesses across Europe are thrilled by the uncertainty of Brexit. “We’re absolutely loving it” said Colin Potts, whose Wolverhampton based company exports wall brackets. His wife and business partner Brenda agrees. “Because we mostly export to the EU, I’ve never had to fill in a customs declaration before – it’s something new and you know what they say, a change is as good as a rest,” she said.

In the event of a No Deal Brexit, UK/EU27 businesses will need to fill in an extra 400 million customs declarations a year, but that doesn’t faze Brenda. “Wow, 400 million! It’s exhilarating to be part of something that big”, she gushed. “As a small business owner, I have plenty of leisure time and am often bored. This is what I am looking for to fill those long empty hours.

Pete Micklethwaite, who owns a road haulage company in Doncaster is also excited. “Will there be a deal, won’t there – it’s creating a real buzz. If there’s no deal our drivers will need three separate driving licences for some of our longer jobs and looking on the bright side, you can never have too many photo IDs.

The EU nationals in Pete’s team aren’t missing out on the excitement either, he explains. “One of our longest serving drivers, Jim, who’s from Romania, asked me the other day whether if he sets off on a job on the continent he’ll be allowed back in. Some people take up gambling for that kind of thing but our lads just need to come to work, if they’ve still got jobs!

“Some of the doom merchants were saying that we needed to be ready for a so-called cliff edge on March 29, but now we’ve got at least two weeks longer than that,” mused Brenda Potts. “These naysayers have obviously never run a small business and don’t understand the grinding boredom of being able to plan ahead.

The opportunities of a No Deal Brexit aren’t passing haulier Pete by either. “A guy I know got involved with a ferry company with no ferries and still landed some big contracts. When he told me about it I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t an April fool but it wasn’t. Now that’s entrepreneur-ship.”

 

If  you’re worried about the impact of a No Deal Brexit on your business, download the Ready for Brexit No Deal Survival Kit

BASF prepares its UK supply chain for Brexit

BASF has been working with Ready for Brexit (the online platform I co-founded last year) as part of its programme to prepare its UK supply chain for Brexit.  Here, Ready for Brexit’s editor, Anna Tobin,  reports on the workshops that BASF has been running this month for SMEs.

The world’s largest chemical business, BASF, has a large network of companies in the UK. Over the last few weeks, it has run a series of workshops for those working in its supply chain to ensure that its UK infrastructure is as ready as possible for Brexit.

Of all the UK’s industrial sectors, the chemical industry is likely to be one of the worst hit by a no-deal Brexit. It contributes £15bn annually to the UK economy and it is the UK’s largest manufacturing exporter, with 60% of its exports going to the EU. As the lynchpin of this industry, BASF is doing everything it can to prepare the UK’s chemical industry for Brexit. Working with the Government and in collaboration with every link in its supply chain has been the focus of BASF’s Brexit preparations.

BASF has worked closely with Ready for Brexit to highlight key areas for attention to its SME partners. Over the last month, it has run a series of workshops for SMEs in its supply chain involving presentations and question and answer sessions with Government advisors, senior figures at BASF, logistics and customs experts.

Logistics
Bill Bowker, director of transport and warehousing company Bowker Group, which has been working with BASF since 1986, headed one workshop. He explained to his audience that as part of his Brexit contingency planning he has increased his storage space and staffing, obtained ECMT permits and ensured that his drivers have international driving licences and green cards; while he is advising his customers to increase their stock levels and ensure that all shipping information is correct to minimise delays.

Abram Op de Beeck, BASF’s customs and foreign trade manager, advised attendees to get an EORI number as soon as possible, to sign up for Transitional Simplified Procedures for customs and to consider appointing a customs agent to simplify the management of their customs declarations.

DEFRA
Alun Williams, who is working on EU exit for chemicals and pesticides at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), explained that the Government is working to ensure that any new UK regulatory systems will mirror the existing EU systems as far as possible to minimise costs to industry. He also said that they were endeavoring to minimise disruption to integrated supply chains for chemicals, will continue to monitor and evaluate chemicals in the UK to reduce the risk posed to human health and the environment; and that they would be maintaining existing standards of protection for human health and the environment.

He conceded that businesses looking to operate in the UK and EU markets will have to work with two regulatory systems. To maintain access to the EEA market, UK REACH registration holders will need to transfer their registrations to an EEA-based organisation. And to maintain UK market access to existing UK-based REACH, registrants must sign up to the new UK IT system in the first 120 days of the UK leaving the EU. The other alternative is to ask your EU/EEA supplier to appoint a UK-based Only Representative to ensure UK REACH compliance.

Williams explained that to register a new chemical for the EEA market, UK companies must register with ECHA via an EEA-based customer or Only Representative. To register a new chemical for the UK market, UK companies must set up an account on UK REACH IT and register the new chemical.

BEIS
Fiona Hitchiner, senior policy advisor chemicals at the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), pointed people towards the Government’s tariff checker and advised them to review their contracts and International Terms and Conditions of Service to show that they are now an importer/exporter and to establish responsibilities with their suppliers and customers. She also reminded attendees to check whether they could save money and help cash flow by using a duty relief or deferment scheme and reiterated the need to obtain an EORI number and to register for Transitional Simplified Procedures.

The day-long workshops were full on, but that is why BASF has put on these events. It wants to get the message across that there is a lot to do to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, and that preparation is vital to minimise the expected ill-effects.

Companies and investors have just 30 working days left to prepare for a No Deal Brexit

Companies across the UK and EU27 are suddenly realising there are now just 30 working days until the UK will likely abandon its 45-year trading relationship with the EU, and start to trade on WTO terms.

If this happens, every supply chain involving a movement between the UK and EU27 will change. And all those supply chains governed by EU deals outside the EU will also change. A large number of industries are already being impacted:

  • Scotch whisky exports to Korea worth £71m ($90m) a year, risk a 20% tariff after 29 March if the EU’s Free Trade Agreement is replaced by WTO rules. It is now too late to export by boat, causing some exporters to use expensive air freight to beat the deadline. But capacity is already almost full.
  • Many banks, insurance companies and asset managers have already moved staff from London into the EU27.  They cannot risk waking up on 30 March to find they can no longer serve customers from London, because they have lost the essential EU “passport”.
  • “CE Marks” issued in the UK will no longer be valid in the EU27 after No Deal  – making it difficult to sell any goods that need safety, health or environmental approval.
  • And last week, BASF’s UK MD, Richard Carter, told Ready for Brexit that for the world’s largest chemical company: “The thought of having to re-register with a UK REACH equivalent if there is no deal and if there is no recognition equivalence is a huge concern”.

THE UK REMAINS ON COURSE TO LEAVE THE EU WITH NO DEAL ON 29 MARCH
But surely, you say, “this cannot happen”.  After all the UK’s main business organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, has already warned that No Deal would create “a situation of national emergency“.

But the leading Tory Brexiters don’t believe this.  Their 111 votes, combined with the 10 votes from the Democratic Unionist Party, meant premier May’s Withdrawal Agreement was defeated by 230 votes last month.  It would have provided a Transition Agreement until the end of 2020.

However, their votes then swung behind her to defeat the motion of No Confidence in the government, which would have led to a general election.  Why did they do this, you might ask, given they had just voted against her key policy?

The answer is that the Brexiters have a completely different view of the Brexit negotiations, as I noted in The pH Report last year.

They simply don’t accept the CBI argument. Instead they believe the EU27 will be the main losers from No Deal as they argue the financial outcome will be:

“Plus £651 billion ($875bn) for the UK versus minus £507bn for the EU: it could not be more open and shut who least wants a breakdown.“

In their view, the best way to force the EU27 to offer a better deal is simply to leave on 29 March.

They also, as I noted here in December, will be quite happy to see the end of key industries such as autos, as the leading Brexiter economist Prof Patrick Minford told the Treasury Committee in October:

You are going to have to run it down … in the same way we ran down the coal industry and steel industry. These things happen.”

The alternatives to No Deal are now also extremely limited.  The Caroline Spelman/Jack Dromey resolution to block No Deal was passed last month by 8 votes. But it was only a resolution and has no legal force.

Of course, Parliament might change its mind and decide to vote for May’s Agreement.  Or the government might revoke its Article 50 notification before the UK leaves on 29 March. But both would split the Tory and Labour Parties and are unlikely to happen.

The government could also decide to hold a second referendum. But again, this would split both parties and is unlikely.

It is therefore hard to disagree with the independent Institute for Government, who concluded: “Britain’s politicians are unwilling to put jobs and the economy above party politics.

The only other option is for MPs to effectively take over the government by demanding that it stops No Deal.  It is not clear how this could happen, but presumably they could pass legislation demanding that May asks Brussels for a lengthy extension to Article 50.

But such a move by Parliament has never happened before. It would need key Ministers such as Chancellor Philip Hammond to vote against their own government. It would also need support from enough Opposition MPs to overcome Brexiter resistance.

It would also risk a constitutional crisis, as it would replace an elected government.  And in terms of practicalities, it would presumably also mean that the UK would take part in the EU Parliament elections, as it would still be a full EU member in May. The whole process would take the UK into completely uncharted water.

THERE ARE JUST 30 WORKING DAYS LEFT TO PREPARE FOR A NO DEAL BREXIT

Anticipating this risk led me to co-found Ready for Brexit last year, to help businesses navigate the challenges and opportunities created by Brexit.

It is effectively the one-stop shop requested recently by the CBI.  It provides curated links to all the areas where you may need to urgently prepare for Brexit.

The video explains what WTO rules could mean for your business. Please watch it now, and then decide if you need to start planning today for whatever may happen on 29 March.

The BoE’s pre-emptive strike is not without risk

The Financial Times has kindly printed my letter below, arguing that it seems the default answer to almost any economic question has now become “more stimulus” from the central bank.

After 15 years of subprime lending and then quantitative easing, last week’s warning from the Bank of England suggests there are fewer and fewer economic questions to which the default answer is not “more stimulus”.

But it is still disappointing to find the Financial Times supporting this reflex reaction when considering the risks associated with Brexit next month (“Bank of England must grapple with the risks of a no-deal Brexit”, February 6). Nobody would dispute that the bank has a critical role in terms of ensuring financial stability through the Brexit transition. As the FT says, the “potential outcomes are discrete and the impacts vary widely”.

But the bank has already fulfilled this role by publishing its November assessment of the no-deal risks for government and parliament to consider. There is therefore no justification for the bank to pre-emptively impose its views by deciding to keeping interest rates artificially low.

The political risks associated with such an intervention would be large, particularly if the bank’s assessment or its proposed solution proves wrong. And there is also the risk of unintended consequences.

The history of stimulus does, after all, suggest that the only certain outcome of lower interest rates would be a further rise in today’s already sky-high level of asset prices.

Paul Hodges
The pH Report