Britain’s role on the international stage is changing, politically and commercially. As the country’s relationship with the EU changes, will the UK still be able to find markets for all its manufactured goods? Brexit makes that questions even more pressing. The EU is, after all, our largest trading partner.
“We already are an exporting powerhouse,” Nadhim Zahawi, minister for business and industry, told the audience at an event convened by Prospect, supported by Associated British Ports, at the Conservative party conference. Through conversations with business owners, he said, his impression of the UK’s exporting sector was threefold: “one, they are prepared and ready for Brexit.” “Second, they want a deal.”
“Third thing they say, the worst outcome for their business is compounding the uncertainty and not actually making a decision and simply kicking the can down the road with a further delay, a further extension. That, to all businesses, is the greatest danger.”
“I’ve just returned from China, where I led the British delegation to the world manufacturing convention,” he said. “We were the only country of honour. The only pavilion of any country was ours.” “We are the 9th largest manufacturer in the world and British manufacturers are very attractive to the Chinese consumer.”
“The opportunity in high value manufacturing—the wings on the airbus are made here. It’s an incredibly sticky business.” “Of course, having a deal will enhance that industry further.”
David Leighton of Associated British Ports welcomed the minister’s remarks, and asked, rhetorically, whether Britain had the infrastructure to live up to that vision. “Yes, but we can always do more.”
“In respect of our ports, there’s always more that can be done in terms of connectivity,” he said. He also welcomed the government’s interest in the idea of free ports. There are a number of ports in the UK with unused land near to deep water and which would attract investment. “Freeport status would super-charge their competitiveness.”
Overall, he said, “the UK needs a clearer and bolder vision about trade,” and he called for a “trade-first review” across all areas of policy, the clarity of which would be beneficial and inspiring as there’s always more that can be done in terms of connectivity, by investing in improved road and rail links to ports.
Claire Walker, of the British Chambers of Commerce, remarked that “relatively few” exporting businesses have prepared for no deal and those that have tend to be the bigger ones. “We argue that businesses should prepare and we have seen the change in that since the new PM has come into office. There has been an improvement of information,” from the government side, she said. “But many of the answers are still not there, in the area of trade.” Businesses are having to guess about tariffs, deadlines and more, she said. “You can understand why there is a level of frustration.” “We are seeing businesses not wanting to invest because of the current uncertainty,” she said. “We question whether no deal would bring certainty, or more uncertainty.”
Richard Graham, the MP and member of the Exiting the European Union Committee was more bullish. The declining pound, he said, is “incredibly helpful” for exporting companies. That, combined with the fact that “the reputation of our national brand has never been higher,” puts Britain in a very strong position, he said.
“Self-belief is an incredibly strong driver of our exports,” he remarked. “We could as a nation be a bit more aggressive in sales terms,” and take advantage of the fact that “the world is more full of richer customers than it was five years ago.” “There are,” he said, “more people who like our products and our services.”
Claire Walker pointed out that, “whatever your view of Brexit, there will be a change in market conditions.” As for the confidence of the politicians on the panel, she was very direct. Businesses, she said, had not been given the information they needed to plan for Brexit. “It is also dangerous to say that all the evidence is there,” she said, “because it’s just not.”
Ranil Jayawardena, the MP for North East Hampshire, commented that “it’s important we don’t overegg the difficulties,” and remarked that “it is possible to leave without a deal.” Eurotunnel has been planning for a no deal, he pointed out. “They’ve got the contingencies in place, should they need it.”
“There’s too much focus on what we don’t have,” he said. “Let’s be positive and not allow some folk for political reasons to talk us down.”