Brexit minister feels the heat

Hundreds of Lancashire business leaders gave a resounding thumbs-down to the government’s handling of Brexit negotiations at an event addressed by minister Kwasi Kwarteng.

One told Mr Kwarteng that it was time for MPs to “stop chasing rainbows” and called on the government to do more to restore the UK’s international reputation for trade.

Around 300 delegates attended the Brexit For Business conference staged by North Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce at Preston’s Guild Hall.

Dawn Cheetham, president of the chamber, said that tough times lie ahead for the county’s businesses but insisted they were ready for the challenge.

She said: “The chamber recognises it will be a tough period for many in business with owners, directors and board members forced to make difficult decisions due to factors outside their control.

“Businesses have had to field their way almost blindly trying to second guess the outcome of Brexit discussions.

She added: “Business will not wait for others to create opportunities. Business will lead the way to help the UK rise to new challenges and seize new opportunities.

No deal will be disastrous for the UK economy, without question.

“It is business and trade that will ultimately restore confidence in the UK and with trade partners around the world.”

She added: “Our elected representatives cannot keep chasing rainbows – they need to take tough decisions.

“All in business want to move forward. There is much we can do together in the face of relentless political, technological and social change.

“British Chambers are working with government to expand our global network of contacts.”

She also called for a post-Brexit strategy on training, to unlock potential; an immigration policy to welcome skills from around the world; commitment to infrastructure, transport and energy security and help for businesses to win new work around the world.

Also speaking at the event was Kwasi Kwarteng, under-secretary of state for Brexit. The minister said the referendum vote must be honoured and said he accepted it must be frustrating for business that the government’s Brexit deal had not been passed.

Kicking the can down the road for the next six months is the worst option for business.

He acknowledged that there was uncertainty and added: “We have to work to minimise disruption for businesses.”

And he added: “I’m not an expert. I’m someone who is working passionately to get a deal over the line.

“I don’t think anyone can claim to be an expert on Brexit because these are uncharted waters. No-one has the compass.”

Asked by Lancashire Business View if he had any cheer for key county sectors including manufacturing, agriculture and hospitality – all of which, according to his government’s impact analyses, are predicted to take hits under any Brexit scenario – the minister said he disputed the analysis.

Miranda Barker, chief executive of East Lancashire Chamber, challenged the minister over the withdrawal agreement extension. She said: “Does Parliament realise that kicking the can down the road for the next six months is the worst option for business?"

In response, the minister said he hoped a deal could be achieved.

Host Rob McLoughlin asked those present to raise a hand if they felt negotiations were being well handled by the government. None of the 300 did.

The event also featured interactive panel discussions and the closing address was given by David Taylor, interim chair of the Lancashire Enterprise partnership,  who urged the government to stand up to the hard line Brexiteers and do everything possible to avoid a ‘no deal’ scenario.

He said: “No deal will be disastrous for the UK economy, without question, and it is regions such as the North West that will be hit hardest and have to pick up the tab. 

“Business doesn’t care about the politics involved – people will just do whatever is best for their business. We need investment to stay in this country and more importantly in the North West.”