Treating the Brexit negotiations like a car dealership needs to stop

Nissan’s announcement that the X-Trail will not be produced at its Sunderland plant is a severe blow to the men and women of Nissan Sunderland, their supply chain and the wider regional economy. It is an indictment of a prime minister too busy indulging the imperial wet dreams of her backbenchers to protect our automotive future. And it illustrates perfectly and tragically the fallacy at the heart of hard no-deal bargaining bluster.

Now that the leader of the Labour Party has written to the prime minister setting out the basis for a sensible, reasonable and eminently negotiable deal with the EU, and following the clear vote in parliament against a no-deal Brexit, perhaps now is the time for the prime minister to stop blackmailing the nation and take a no-deal Brexit off the table.

She can finally take on the imperial wing of her party and all their bargain-basement business acumen. They say you can’t take no-deal off the table — that would be like buying a car and telling the car dealer you wouldn’t walk away.

But Brexit is not like buying a car. As the Nissan announcement makes clear, Brexit is more like building a car. That is what we are trying to do: to ensure that, post-Brexit, we can still build cars at Nissan in Sunderland and Jaguar Land Rover in the Midlands and Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port. Not to mention building cars in which the engines come from Wales and the gear shaft from Germany and the batteries from Sunderland and the wheel axles from France and the seat leather from Poland and creating jobs, good well-paying, high-value manufacturing jobs.

Another reason why the car dealership analogy doesn’t work is that there is not a competitive market in $20 trillion free trade areas. There is no Autotrader-equivalent listing of local single market dealerships nor is there a Gumtree page advertising all the nearby 500-million wealthy people unions which you can filter by colour and mileage. There is only one European Union and there is only one United Kingdom and whilst the UK may be leaving the EU there will be an ongoing relationship with it which we can no more walk away from than we can cut the British Isles from the European mainland and tow them to somewhere off the coast of America.

In these kinds of negotiations between effectively a monopoly supplier and a monopoly customer you do not engage in blackmail, temper tantrums, threats or bluster. You seek common ground, mutual interests, long-term relationships.

I speak from experience, having been responsible for private-sector regulation for Ofcom. I have also taken part in multimillion-pound deal negotiations as a product manager for Cable and Wireless, one of the very few companies which had the global footprint necessary (then) to deliver a global virtual private network service. Negotiations were not conducted on the basis of walking away.

The Labour Party knows that. That’s why we want a comprehensive customs union, shared institutions, and an ongoing close relationship with the EU. Traditionally, the Tory party has prided itself on being the party of business, but Brexit is well and truly trashing that reputation.

Dismay at Theresa May’s lack of consultation and disbelief at the amateurishness of her Brexit negotiation team have turned to disgust at the Tories’ willingness to leave no-deal firmly on the table. From Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, telling British business they had no right to comment on Brexit to Mark Francois MP dismissing Airbus’s chief executive because his father fought in the Second World War, the Tories are establishing themselves firmly as the party of business farce.

Those familiar with the long history of Tory ideological fracture over Europe feared this might happen. For business, more concerned with balance sheets than dogma, it is truly incomprehensible.

No good can come from a no-deal Brexit. It will destroy supply chains, jobs, investment. It may turn the southeast into a car park and leave the north without fresh vegetables. But it will also be the bonfire of the Conservative Party’s business reputation with an act of economic sabotage unparalleled in the history of our country. For the sake of their own narrow self-interest, if not the country’s, the Tory party must take no-deal off the table now.


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