Businesses are in ‘despair’ at the prospect of a hard Brexit, BEIS minister Richard Harrington warns. The Tory MP tells Kevin Schofield why he’s urging the prime minister to take no-deal off the table and end the uncertainty
In normal times, it would be highly unusual for a minister to be openly critical of the government while sitting in a room with a journalist and a tape recorder. But these are pretty far from normal times.
So when Richard Harrington is asked what he makes of Theresa May’s decision to essentially kick the Brexit can down the road for another fortnight, he is refreshingly candid in his reply.
“I’m very disappointed because we were told that the prime minister would be coming back to the House of Commons and there would be a statement and an amendable vote after that,” he says. “I took that, as someone who is very concerned about the effects of not ruling out a hard Brexit, to mean we would have a deal or outline deal to discuss and the option of looking at that.
“We’re now told it will be in another two weeks’ time so, being very conscious of the damage that not ruling out a hard Brexit is having on business and industry, I’m concerned that it’s going to drag on.
“What concerns me most is there is now talk that there won’t be a final decision until the next EU Council on 21 March which, as far as business is concerned, is completely unacceptable.”
As far as Harrington is concerned, his job is very simple. As minister for business and industry, he must communicate to No 10 the frustrations of firms across the country about the current state of play on Brexit. They are, he says, in “despair” at the ongoing deadlock and the government’s refusal to confirm that, come what may, the UK will not leave the EU without a deal in place.
Anyone who doubts that the impasse is having a negative impact on the economy need only look at the GDP figures, Harrington says. They show that economic growth in the UK slowed to just 0.2% in the final three months of 2018, while business investment continues to fall across the board.
“It’s completely linked to Brexit uncertainty, because everything else is positive – low interest rates, availability of credit and so on,” he says. “When I look at the companies in my sector, for example automotive, aerospace and the creative industries, every company is either postponing decisions or moving business abroad and I’m very concerned about it.
“I recently met with a big chemicals company who were very clear that they were looking at relocating jobs to other countries where they have exactly the same facilities, making exactly the same product but they can be certain they have full access to the European Union and they don’t have the kind of regulative problems they’ll have with Britain becoming a third country.
“I feel it’s my job to articulate the frustrations that business has. I meet the representative bodies every Wednesday morning and they express their fears about the damage that failing to rule out a hard Brexit does. I feel it’s my job to bring that to the prime minister’s attention and I’m very disappointed that she’s not in a position to rule it out now.”
Harrington has been very clear that he will resign if a no-deal Brexit becomes official government policy, and admitted he is currently considering his position. But he fears that vacating the pitch will simply embolden the hard Brexiteers in the Tory backbench European Research Group (ERG). “The question for me is not whether I stay in the job or not, it is whether, given that I feel passionately about the interests of business and industry – which is what it says on my business card – where can I make the most influence?” he points out.
“I would much rather act collectively with other like-minded ministers, not to force the government to do something that it doesn’t want to do, but to show the leadership that the views they receive from the ERG are a minority view and they’re not the majority of the Conservative party, let alone of parliament.”
Harrington adds: “If we all resigned, what would then happen? If I were in the ERG, it would give me a lot of pleasure to see us resign. But we can’t give in to a minority of a minority, which is what the ERG is.
“The prime minister has done a pretty good job of standing up to the ERG until now, but they were drinking champagne to celebrate her losing her deal and I regard that as being treachery.
“I read that Nigel Farage is setting up a new party called Brexit and if I were them I’d be looking at that, because that seems to reflect their views more than the Conservative party. In my view, they’re not Conservatives.
“There are people who are very solid and stringent in their views and if I were them I would be looking at a party that seems designed for them – Nigel Farage’s party.”
The solution to the deadlock, in Harrington’s opinion, is not to be found in another referendum. Instead, he favours the Norway plus, or “common market 2.0” option suggested by the likes of Nick Boles and Robert Halfon. He also says a permanent customs union with the EU should not be ruled out, something else which fills the ERG with dread. “I hope the prime minister realises that by refusing to rule out a hard Brexit she’s forcing us into a position we don’t want to be in. Because we’d much rather support her deal or a variation of it and move on. But if we can’t support that, it would have to be a customs union or something like it,” he says.
“My priority would be leaving on 29 March with a deal. If the only way of achieving that is with a customs union, a Norway plus-type arrangement, so be it.”
Such is the strange nature of British politics in 2019, Harrington could not guarantee that he would still be in his job by the time this interview is published. But if he is, businesses can be sure that their concerns are not going unheard in government.