Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the automotive industry will be put at risk if the UK doesn’t stay in the EU customs union “as a minimum”, the sector has warned amid an “ominous” collapse in investment.
Mike Hawes, chief executive of trade association the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), said uncertainty over Brexit negotiations is “holding us back” as new figures show investment has been slashed by nearly half so far this year.
Around 860,000 people work for car manufacturers and in the automotive supply chain in the UK. The industry saw £347 million of investment earmarked for new models and facilities in the first half of this year, down from £647m in the same period in 2017, a decline that Mr Hawes called “ominous”. The figure was £2.5 billion in 2015.
It follows concerns raised by car giant BMW, which employs around 8,000 people in the UK, over the future of the motoring industry post-Brexit. Plane manufacturer Airbus, which employs 14,000 people in the UK, also warned last week that it would “reconsider its investments in the UK, and its long-term footprint in the country” if Britain was forced to leave the single market and customs union without a transition.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who led the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, is reported to have responded “f*** business” when the concerns were put to him at an event at the weekend.
In the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Johnson did not deny he made the comment, telling MPs: “From time to time I have expressed scepticism about those who profess to speak up for business.”
Appearing at a business summit, Theresa May tried to repair the damage, telling an audience of British executives that “a Conservative government will always listen to your voice and back you every step of the way”.
But the SNP’s Europe spokesman at Westminster, Peter Grant, said: “In less than a week we have heard a succession of grave Brexit warnings raised by Airbus, BMW, and today, the UK’s car manufacturers and dealers body, over the detrimental impact the UK government’s hard Brexit plans will have on jobs and their future in the country.
“The UK government’s response so far has been to tell all these business leaders to sit down and shut up.”
Ahead of an SMMT event on Tuesday, Mr Hawes spoke of his “growing frustration” and warned there was “no credible plan B for frictionless customs arrangements”.
“The current position, with conflicting messages and red lines, goes directly against the interests of the UK automotive sector which has thrived on single market and customs union membership,” he said.
Meanwhile, cheers rang out in the House of Commons after Speaker John Bercow announced that the European Union (Withdrawal) Act had been granted royal assent.
Brexit Secretary David Davis hailed the legislation, which enables EU law to be transferred into UK law, as a “landmark moment in our preparations” for Brexit.