U.K. Business Warms to May as Optimism on Brexit Deal Grows
(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told about 150 business leaders that Britain’s future success depended on them amid signs that the government is optimistic of closing a Brexit deal this month.
Chief executives from companies including Aston Martin Holdings U.K. Ltd, easyJet Plc and Serco Group Plc were spotted walking into the meeting with Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond in central London on Wednesday.
The event was focused on Monday’s budget, said four people with knowledge of the matter, who didn’t want to be identified because the discussion was private. May was there too, reassuring attendees of progress in divorce negotiations with the European Union and how she expected to provide more clarity soon, one of the people said.
The catch-up with the corporate world, which in the past has felt overlooked, comes less than two weeks after May hosted a conference call with many of the same companies to debrief them on the progress of her Brexit talks after returning home from an EU summit.
It was also held just hours after it emerged the U.K.’s lead Brexit negotiator Dominic Raab had indicated in a week-old letter that a deal on the divorce will be finalized by Nov. 21. That fact wasn’t raised at the meeting, according to one person. Since then, the government tried to downplay the significance of Raab’s remarks, though one official said the letter still reflected current thinking.
What’s clear is that the government is conveying optimism. Executives left the meeting with Hammond and May feeling upbeat and are effusive about their efforts to engage with them more closely, according to Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of London First, a group that campaigns to bring more business in the capital.
It’s great to hear both the prime minister -- and her finance minister -- “express their desire to work with business to achieve jobs and growth and recognize the role of business” in the Brexit discussions, said Whitbread. It’s also reassuring to know that “this is a dialog and not just a one-off.”
Hammond took attendees through the measures in the budget one by one and May told leaders they needed to help the public better understand the importance of free markets, one of the people said. She also mentioned the importance of getting a good deal on services, which has been noticeable by its absence in recent months, another person said.
With only five months until the U.K. leaves the bloc, businesses are increasingly concerned about the uncertainty surrounding Britain’s ability to secure a deal and what shape it would take. While most of the biggest companies have developed contingency plans for worst-case scenarios, many small and medium-sized businesses don’t have the resources to prepare.
May and her Cabinet are in the process of restarting negotiations with Brussels after a brief pause, with Raab set to make his first visit to the Northern Ireland border on Friday to see the challenges for himself and inject fresh momentum into the talks.
“She set out that the government would work to build a Britain that would be unequivocally pro-business through enhancing competitiveness, helping businesses plan for the future,” according to the government’s own readout of the meeting.
One thing was clear, according to one attendee. The prime minister has moved on from merely talking about being pro-business to actually meaning it and actively engaging with corporate Britain.
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