Of course Europe came up, and Ken trotted out the old line about “All serious business people support EU membership, and know it’s best for the economy – the CBI etc etc”. He seemed entirely unconcerned that these are the very same people who fifteen years ago were telling us that we should face a disaster if we failed to join the €uro. Our financial services business would migrate to Frankfurt. Investment would go elsewhere. Jobs would be lost. Plants would close. The motor industry would emigrate to the eurozone.
The truth was the exact opposite. It was the eurozone that faced a chronic economic malaise as a direct consequence of the Single Currency, while we in Britain have thanked our lucky stars that we stayed out. Yet now this same chorus that got it so wrong on the €uro is getting it equally wrong on Brexit.
Ken seemed blissfully unaware (or maybe prefers to ignore) the rapidly growing list of business people who are either speaking out for Brexit — or at least saying that they are comfortable with it and that Brexit will do no harm. Lord Bamford is Chairman of JCB — one of the UK’s pre-eminent engineering and export businesses. Peter Cruddas, a self-made financial services entrepreneur and former co-treasurer of the Conservative Party worth a reported £1.5 billion. John Mills, the head of JML, the television shopping giant, and the largest individual donor to the Labour Party. Crispin Odey, who is worth £1.1 billion and has donated £200,000 to the Tories and given funding to Ukip; and John Caudwell, the entrepreneur and philanthropist, who is worth £1.4 billion. And the list is growing by the day.
So why do many large companies still speak out in favour of EU membership? Are they really committed to it, or could there be another reason? Indeed there is, and I see it on a daily basis in Brussels. The scary fact is that the European Commission has an enormous regulatory impact on business, and especially on large businesses. That’s why business retains thousands (yes thousands) of lobbyists in Brussels to seek to influence the Commission. And to get the ear of the Commission, it doesn’t help to make statements sympathetic to Brexit. It’s almost a condition of access to the Commission that one broadly toes the Brussels line — whether on EU membership, or indeed on that other contentious issue, climate change.
Often I speak out in Committee on these issues, and it’s by no means unusual to find a shame-faced business representative sidling up to me afterwards and saying “Thank you so much for bringing a little common sense to the debate – that’s exactly what we believe, but of course you understand why we can’t say so”. Nudge nudge. Wink wink. Indeed I do understand.
So there is real commercial pressure on any company that might ever want the ear of the Commission, to avoid seeming critical of the project.
Earlier in October, the CEO of GE, Jeff Immelt (GE is one of the world’s largest companies, and employs many thousands in the UK) reportedly said he saw no problems with Brexit, and no adverse impact on his business. Yet a few days later the GE press office came out with a rather po-faced press release saying that they hadn’t meant to imply support for the OUT campaign, and that Jeff Immelt shouldn’t be quoted in that context (so I’m sorry, Jeff, for quoting you again). I’m guessing that there was a panic in the GE Government Affairs Office, fearful that the European Commission would never speak to them again.
Or quite possibly (and here I’m speculating, but in very realistic terms) the local GE person in Brussels was called in by the Commission and told in no uncertain terms that GE had better change its tune if it ever wanted to talk to the Commission again. As I say, pure speculation, but in my view, very likely. It must have taken a big hit to get GE to undertake such an embarrassing climb-down in short order.