It is safe to say that the result of the recent general election took many – business owners included - by surprise.
Theresa May sought a personal mandate to lead Brexit negotiations; as we have seen, her strategy fell short with the electorate.
The recent Queen’s Speech is a reflection of this – a stripped down legislative agenda that focuses on Brexit over the next two years, with eight complex bills set to deal with extricating the UK from the European Union.
Brexit, of course, hasn’t been the major immediate priority for many of the businesses we at the British Chambers of Commerce represent. The fundamentals here at home – our economy, our infrastructure, our mobile connectivity and our skills base – matter just as much, if not more, to many firms in business communities across the UK.
However, firms of every size and shape want to avoid further turbulence and confusion during the Brexit transition. It is the hope of business that the Great Repeal Bill delivers continuity and the day-one equivalence that is needed to keep trade flowing with customers and suppliers, both in Europe and around the world. Firms are adamant that we must avoid any early adjustment costs arising from a change in regulatory obligations.
The bills on Customs, Immigration, and Trade included in the Queen's Speech as part of the Brexit process were expected, and are extremely critical. Chambers of Commerce members facilitate tens of billions of pounds worth of UK trade across borders every year, and businesses of all sizes want to ensure that any new UK Customs Code underpins seamless trade between the UK and the Continent. Equally, they want government to get on with the job of securing the benefits of existing free trade agreements - negotiated over decades as part of or EU membership - before moving on to deals with new markets.
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The future of immigration is also of great interest. While businesses will have welcomed the Prime Minister’s proposal to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – which should have been made loud and clear a year ago – they will be concerned if the needs of the economy are not front and centre in the coming once-in-a-generation overhaul of the UK’s immigration system.
Firms of every size and shape want to avoid further turbulence and confusion during the Brexit transition.
SMEs accept the need for controls over migration flows, but with skills shortages at near record highs and a tight labour market, they will want clear assurances that they can still recruit from overseas to fill vacancies when they are unable to find or train suitable staff in the UK. There is a clear demand for a flexible system that supports economic growth, which also enjoys public support.
Business will also welcome the renewed commitment in the Queen's Speech to the Industrial Strategy. A new, place-focused approach is a unique opportunity to deliver an effective partnership between dynamic business communities and government, which would create the conditions for both, and reduce barriers for new firms starting their journey.
By sweeping away the barriers to local growth, established firms will become more productive and do better – and new concentrations of business and innovation will emerge. Crucially, SMEs will thrive across the country if the next government works to deliver a globally competitive business environment.
Just as important as what is in the government’s legislative programme, however, is what is missing.
On infrastructure, the business community will welcome the commitment for the second phase of HS2, which will be a boost for local economies, jobs, and supply chains. However there needs to be a full national network, and other road and rail priorities delivered, to ensure that the UK domestic economy is in the best place to navigate the challenges and opportunities that Brexit may bring. Heathrow expansion, better mobile and digital connectivity, and cyber security are also on business's wish list.
Just as important as what is in the government’s legislative programme, however, is what is missing. In recent years there has been a trend towards more local control, with the election of city region mayors and devolution deals in some areas. However, there was nothing on local government in the Queen’s Speech that could reassure small businesses across the country that their concerns on the future of devolution in the UK are being met. As it stands, the government is failing to deliver clarity on future deals. SMEs in their local areas know what is needed to unlock local growth, but there does not seem to be a clear path ahead for our regions and nations.
Ultimately, small businesses across the country want to see a workable government going about its day job, and a strong consensus that the economy is once again front and centre in political life. The key to a successful Brexit – and our future economic prosperity – is to do everything to unlock the growth potential in our towns, cities and countries. This will give our SMEs the confidence to drive investment, job growth, and exports, throughout the Brexit period and beyond.