Did Brexit really mean Brexit in 2017?
Jo Sellick, managing director of Sellick Partnership
As we near the end of 2017 and reflect back on a year that has been politically turbulent to say the least, it is time to look at where we stand regarding Brexit. And, unfortunately, the answer is that we are not much further along than when the year began, which means there is continued uncertainty for business leaders and employees. January saw the first major speech on Brexit from Theresa May, in which she outlined her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ stance and stated that we would be heading for a hard exit from the EU. May pledged that we would not remain in the single market and committed to instating Article 50 by the end of March. The speech was decisive and appeared to give a clear plan on the next steps; however, almost a year on and it really does not feel like much has changed. If anything, the snap general election in May 2017 just added to the feeling of uncertainty.
The most recent development in the debate came this week, in the form of a surprise claim by Brexit secretary David Davis suggesting that parliament might not get to vote on the Brexit deal until after March 2019, when the UK would have already left the EU. May was forced to quickly rebuke this and told parliament she was confident a vote would occur before then. But all this back and forth does little to inspire confidence from the nation’s business leaders and the wider British public about what will really happen when the UK leaves the EU. This inability of politicians to agree with members of their own party - and indeed their leader - has been a theme of our government for the majority of 2017.
So, what do we actually know now that we did not know when the year began? When Article 50 was triggered in March this year, it meant that we will definitely leave the EU by the end of March 2019. In May’s speech in Florence in September, it was suggested that there will be a period of transition, in which, both sides will be flexible in implementing the new status quo. This could last two years, effectively meaning that it could be 2021 before we see a real visible change in circumstances. Yet there is also the continued threat from our Prime Minister that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, which has been repeated over the course of the year.
This suggestion that Brexit actually will not happen in the long run is perhaps the biggest reason why there is so much scepticism around the whole process and why business leaders are reluctant - or indeed unable - to make concrete plans. According to a newly published survey by the Wales Governance Centre and YouGov, Wales is deeply divided over how the UK should leave the EU, with 73 per cent of ‘Remain’ voters saying they would be worse off outside the EU, compared with 17 per cent of ‘Leave’ voters. While the survey was only conducted among Welsh respondents, it is indicative of a feeling in the UK as a whole. Professor Roger Scully, from the centre behind the survey, said: “There is little sign of public consensus emerging on Brexit: we are not coming together, as the Prime Minister has suggested, but continue to be deeply divided.”
With just two months of the year remaining, I sincerely hope the negotiations pick up pace and a more concrete path is laid as we enter 2018 and beyond. This is essential if Britain’s business leaders are to forge a strong and decisive future that we so desperately need in order to make a success of Brexit.