Graham Evans of GTE Consultants Ltd on The End of Brexit
Nov 6 2020
When we got together on Friday morning the outcome of the American election was still in the balance. What could not be avoided, however, was that in 7 weeks’ time we finish our journey in leaving the EU at the end of the transition period. Whatever your viewpoint, business has to be ready, and to take some bets on how it will pan out in the longer term, next year and beyond. And that’s all against a background of 50 million cases of Covid worldwide and 1.2 million deaths. A tough year, like no other.
Graham Evans our speaker grew up on a council estate in Poynton and attended the local comprehensive school which he left with only one O level. He worked in various manufacturing industries for some 30 years (“Macclesfield made textiles then”) and gradually got 5 A levels and a night school degree in Business Studies from Manchester Metropolitan University; now he has a Master’s too. From 2010 till 2017 he was the MP for marginal Cheshire seat Weaver Vale; Robert Largan, the new MP for High Peak (“very bright”) was one of his staffers.
We don’t often invite MPs or ex-MPs as speakers, and in fact it’s only ever been on Brexit, with Andrew Lewer MP as the sole previous example in 6 years. The Club is non-political, with members across the spectrum as you’d expect. But the way Brexit is playing out in Brussels and London, it’s all about politics, so it seemed entirely appropriate. Business and trade are on the receiving end, not the driving force of this negotiation.
When Graham’s career ended at Westminster he was a 53 year old redundant family man with that awful conundrum: “What do I do next? How do I earn a living?” That turned out easier than he imagined; in uncertain times, businesses seek advice and guidance. So his consultancy thrived from the start, and he has since set up another. Airbus and UK Hospitality, the trade association for the entire hospitality industry and representing a lot of businesses in our area, are his best-known clients.
“Business does not like uncertainty,” he said. He had been a “reluctant Remainer” during the referendum but (like myself) once the vote was in, turned to trying to ensure that it was respected and carried out with the best outcome possible. “The vast majority of sectors have been agreed, industry by industry,” he pointed out. Lurid stories of planes not being able to land or falling out of the sky or a shortage of medicines will not materialise (or if they do, it’s be for some other reason, not Brexit).
What the UK wants is a free trade deal. For the EU, two sticking points remain in the continuing negotiations: fishing – important to the French; and a prohibition on state support for business (the “level playing field”). In reality both France and Germany give private business a lot of state support – and indeed all countries do at the moment because of the pandemic. But their fear is that the UK may became a fierce off shore competitor. You can’t blame the Europeans for trying to minimise that. And, “Bear in mind that for the UK, the service sector is 90% of our economy; it’s far more important for us than it is for France and Germany.” Much of that, however, in tourism and hospitality, has been badly hit by Covid. You need faith to see a rapid return to normal.
We will however be aligned for health and safety, for food standards; that’s the basis on which we have run things in the UK for over four decades since we became EU members. Standards are not going to change in a hurry, Graham reassured us.
Any operator which trades with Europe should, of course, be already registered with an export license; “There is no reason why trade should be inhibited.” Then why, he was asked, are the government constructing lorry parks in Kent, Essex and elsewhere, which have been dubbed the “Farage Garage” by the press? Possibly for the same reason that millions have been spent on Nightingale Hospitals, and yet they are empty. A decision is taken to prepare for the worst. Governments are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. But Graham is not expecting these vast acreages to be busy.
In any case, as he pointed out, other opportunities are presenting themselves: look at the USA, look at India. Technology allows us to trade around the world; dependence on technology, and on services rather than goods, are trends that have developed for a while, but have been accelerated by Covid. Would Biden be bad news on that front, maybe taking the Irish line? “We need the USA to be engaged with world organisations like the WTO, on climate change, with NATO,” Graham said firmly, taking a much broader view. “We need them to stand up for international rules, and to take on countries like China – which was admitted to the WTO in 2003 with American encouragement, but they don’t play by the rules.” Trump has got some things right, but “ignoring NATO and the EU have been steps in the wrong direction.”
Covid and Brexit can both be used as smoke screens, he warned, for decisions taken for other reasons. He dubbed those decisions the “AroundTo” items – things we would do anyway, but which we’ll get around to when we have time or a window of opportunity. An example: would Brexit be an trigger for Airbus to repatriate the manufacture of aircraft wings from Broughton to France? “Possibly. Their recently announced target of JetZero by 2030 (zero carbon emissions using hydrogen power), could result in repatriation; that would be a political decision. But French employees I’ve spoken to like living in the UK. They don’t want to go back.” Why? “Well, they tell me, ‘You Brits are honest, straightforward, good to do business with, and you’re good fun.’”
This fits with a story reported recently that UCB, a €4.6billion Brussels headquartered company, tried to close its British facilities and move highly-skilled staff to Belgium. They refused en masse to go. The company has quietly caved in, and announced instead £1billion of new investment in the UK over the next 5 years. And, it transpires, the French are the largest buyers into London property at the moment, well ahead of the Americans and Chinese.
And Toyota, far from quitting Burnaston, have confirmed they’ll be building a new hybrid car there. Hmm… that suggests I should ask them to a future Business Club meeting. So watch this space.
NEXT MEETING: Friday 4 December, 7.40 – 9.00 am by Zoom – though we hope to get back to meeting in person next year. Lesley Broderick of Business Development Manager of Clover Chemicals Ltd is our speaker. Long established in Whaley Bridge making detergents and cleaning materials, they were bought by an international €320m Belgian-based company two years ago. Then came Covid. Since then they’ve been frantically busy.. learn how a business adapts fast in these extraordinary times.