The Conservatives are sometimes referred to as the “party of business”, but Brexit has been straining the epithet’s credibility.
Yesterday saw a spat break out between Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and John Lewis boss Charlie Mayfield, although to their credit both remained civil.
It began when the department store announced its latest half-year results, showing profits had fallen by a stunning 99 per cent. Looking ahead to the future, Mayfield said that with “the level of uncertainty facing consumers and the economy, in part due to ongoing Brexit negotiations, forecasting is particularly difficult”.
Raab later decided he needed to “gently” say that it was “rather easy for a business to blame Brexit and the politicians, rather than take responsibility for their own situation”, although he agreed that “uncertainty” around the Brexit talks would have “an impact on business”.
Mayfield didn’t let that slide. Despite saying he did not want to get into “some sort of ding-dong” with Raab, Mayfield stressed he had not actually blamed Brexit for the near-wipeout of the firm’s profits but, still, “the fact is sterling is weaker” so it was “more expensive to import goods” and this was hitting the company’s bottom line.
The exchanges in the coming months may get considerably less polite, particularly if the UK Government fails to secure a trade deal with the European Union. Writing for The Scotsman last week, the CBI’s director-general Carolyn Fairbairn warned a no-deal exit from the EU would be a “catastrophic risk for Scotland and the rest of the UK”.
If that catastrophe is allowed to unfold, the question of blame will be a hotly contested one. No doubt hardline Brexiteers will attempt to turn Brussels into the villain of the piece, given the EU quickly ruled out their idea that the UK should get a “have your cake and eat it” trade deal, securing all the benefits of being in the EU club, without paying the subscription fees or abiding by any of its rules.
Theresa May is said to be at risk of a leadership challenge from her party’s Brexit wing and, even if she doesn’t, rejection of her Chequers plan by the EU would mean the party will face a significant choice between backing a no-deal Brexit or, perhaps, staying in the Single Market. And that would be a choice that could define the Conservative Party for a generation.