Has the business lobby failed in the Brexit process?

By Matthew Rock,

One of the most intriguing sub-plots in the Brexit process has been the performance of the corporate lobbying community. Most of us would have expected the voice of business to dominate the original referendum. In reality, business often seemed sidelined, not quite in tune with the visceral nature of the debate. After Toyota’s deputy managing director in the UK Tony Walkerencouraged employees to vote Remain, every council in Derbyshire (where Toyota employs several thousand people) voted to leave. “Fxxx business” seemed to be their reply – or maybe that was said by someone else…

But like almost everything to do with Brexit, you could argue it a number of ways. Most would agree that business had a poor referendum campaign. Former M&S boss Sir Stuart Rose was meant to be the knight in shining armour for Remain but was soon marginalised.

But then you could maintain that it’s been the quiet lobbying by business that’s led Prime Minister Theresa May to negotiate her ‘soft’ Brexit deal. She was certainly given a very warm welcome at the CBI’s annual conference just a couple of weeks ago amid a torrent of abuse from her so-called parliamentary colleagues. And you could argue that the almost-universal repudiation of a ‘catastrophic no-deal cliff-edge’ (also known as ‘leaving the EU on World Trade Organization terms’) is evidence that business has set the agenda behind the scenes. Or you might say as one senior public relations leader observed to me the other evening, “the CBI has been fXXXing useless”.

As a comms observer, I’d say that Leave has had the flair players – Sir James Dyson and, in particular, Tim Martin of Wetherspoons have massacred the assorted, anonymous FTSE executives – but Remain has shown the better team structure and organisation.

Whatever your politics, it’s likely that corporate lobbying will be permanently shaped (scarred?) by the whole Brexit process, and that organisations large and small will look back on this period when they try to influence government policy.

In future, corporate lobbyists will surely ask themselves: should business be more assertive and demanding with ministers? Are the major business lobby groups effectively neutered by the requirement that they ‘shouldn’t take sides’? Does business’s understandable concerns with securing ‘certainty’ and ‘stability’ mean that their arguments lack emotional force?

These were some of the questions up for discussion at CIPR’s ‘Brexit breakfast’ on the day the Bank of England released its own hotly debated ‘scenarios’ (not ‘forecasts’ obv!) about the economic consequences of deal or no deal. Really, we should have hauled Noel Edmonds out of the jungle to moderate this one.

First up discussing ‘Rebooting Corporate Communications with Government post-Brexit and post-’Fxxx business’ was Economic Secretary to the Treasury, City minister and ‘reluctant Remainer’ John Glen.

Glen’s core point was that lobbyists must ‘work with the grain’ of government policy. They need to understand the, ahem, ‘tight dynamics’ of the current political landscape and show ‘ingenuity’ when pressing their case.

There’s never been much point in showing up at a minister’s office with a last-minute shopping list of previously un-communicated demands that are out of sync with the direction of government policy. Do that right now, and you’re wasting your time, Glen suggested.

“As an MP, you get bombarded with enormous amounts of information,” says Glen. “what I think is really important is that the context is made to be clear; people coming to you with ideas around a narrative that consistently complements where the government has set out their strategic agenda.” Lobbyists need to build “a constructive dialogue that actually takes account of the constraints that exist.”

Right now, in the heat of the Brexit battle, Glen encouraged business to fight for the PM’s deal. He acknowledged that there has at times been a ‘disconnect’ between business and politics. “Business can’t sit passively and expect this to just happen in a vacuum,” he said. “Business has a huge role to play to actually set out the consequences positively of this deal.”

The CBI has taken flak for its stance on Europe both before and after the Referendum. Some say the ‘voice of business’ has been under-powered; others believe that it only represents a small number of FTSE-quoted companies with a narrow, shared agenda of maintaining the status quo.” The CBI’s head of campaigns Callum Biggins says: “Since the vote the CBI has been busy presenting evidence from business of all sizes about what a good Brexit will look like, including calls for a transition period and a customs union.”

Biggins describesthree distinct phases in this government’s relationship with business. First, when Theresa May came to Downing Street and started talking about employee representatives on boards. At that time, says Biggins, “business was seen as a little bit of a problem to be solved, rather than part of the solution.”

Then came the June 2017 General Election and, in July this year, the appointment of William Vereker as business envoy. “The architecture of business engagement is improving,” says Biggins. Business is now squarely behind the PM’s deal and the 21-month transitional period, he says.

Brexit has been a tough gig for the Federation of Small Businesses. The FSB has tens of thousands of members. Many are small, private companies. And, of course, the people running and working in those companies have a range of views about the pros and cons of Brexit.

The FSB’s head of policy Sonali Parekh also acknowledged the challenge of representing such a melting pot of opinion, but, insisted there are areas where the organisation can be very clear. “One of those is that a no-deal scenario with no transition, with that cliff edge, would have a damaging effect on small businesses. A recent survey showed that only 14% of all small businesses are prepared for such a scenario. And there’s a lot saying they’d be disproportionately impacted.”

Joey Jones, strategic counsel at Cicero, said that business and politicians had found it ‘challenging’ not to be perceived as part of the establishment. “The perception [is] that there is a sort of top tier of society that doesn’t really get it, that doesn’t really understand how others are feeling.”

Business and politics blow hot and cold about each other, says Jones who worked for years as a political journalist with Sky News. Business often finds politics “controversial terrain” but will then drop everything when the invitation arrives from Downing Street. Equally, politicians often show ‘intermittent’ interest in the concerns of business. “Sometimes they want to put business back in their box and just say ‘guys, can you just keep it down for now?’, and then the next minute, they want everybody at the barricades.”

Lobbying is always a high-stakes business, and those emotions have only been intensified by the whole Brexit process. There’s years of this still to come. But at least they’re still talking.

And… breathe…

You can join the CIPR’s conversation about the future of lobbying on Twitter.

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Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

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