Theresa May, together with her Government, “confuses the hell” out of the European Union and needs to “get unified” if it wants to succeed in Brexit negotiations, according to the head of the UK’s main business association.

The damning appraisal by Paul Drechsler, president of the Confederation of British Industry, came even before the stinging parliamentary defeat for the prime minister just as she’s about to face her EU counterparts in Brussels.

“Can you imagine running the board of a company, you evaluate a big investment decision, your board walk out of the room and then they all tell a different story?” he said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “You couldn’t run a business that way, and you certainly cannot lead the most complex, challenging commercial negotiation ever taken on unless there is one voice behind that negotiation.”

The stern words directed at Ms May’s management of Brexit preceded Wednesday night’s nail-biting vote that saw Ms May suffer her first defeat on the Government’s flagship piece of Brexit legislation — which transcribes EU law into the UK statute books and exposed the chinks in May’s armour.

In short, the pro-European wing of her Conservative Party were able to successfully mount a rebellion and push through an amendment to ensure Parliament will get a vote on the final Brexit deal before Britain leaves the EU. Going forward it raises big questions over whether May has the authority to impose her version of Brexit or if lawmakers can mould it.

Brexit Deal Not Certain

For Mr Drechsler, “it’s not obvious that we will reach a deal,” he said.

The outspoken comments from a key business figure demonstrate the level of concern felt by corporate Britain about the direction of the negotiations. Companies are holding back from hiring and making investments while they wait to see the trading relationship and any barriers to trade that emerge as Britain leaves the world’s biggest trading bloc.

Ten per cent of companies have started implementing plans for a “no-deal” Brexit, the CBI estimated last month, a proportion that it said will rise to 60 per cent by March.

See You in 12 Months

“I know of examples of investment decisions that are either zero or substantially less than they would have been,” Mr Drechsler said. “When you add up what we would all have done, the economic effect will be felt in 12 or 18 months time.”

Ms May agreed a deal with the European Commission that “sufficient progress” has been made on the rights of EU citizens, the future of the Irish border and Britain’s divorce payment. She’ll return to Brussels for a two-day summit of EU leaders on Thursday and expects her counterparts will accept the commission’s recommendation that talks can move on to trade.

While Mr Drechsler, chairman of Bibby Line, sees last week’s deal as “very significant political progress,” he said that “as a business person,” he isn’t sure it amounts to much.

The business priority is for transitional arrangements to be agreed soon, he said. Ms May is seeking a two-year period after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019 to smooth the path out of the bloc. The EU plans to start talks about transition in January before talks on trade begin in March.

“Until I have details on transition heads of agreement, and how long it will last, I still have considerable uncertainty,” Mr Drechsler said. “For certain it will be difficult to persuade a board to get behind a major investment,” he said. “The transition’s only valuable from the point at which you fire the gun.”

Bloomberg

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