Photo has been used for illustrative purposes.
Michael Heseltine, The Independent
The outcome of the last general election ended the debate about our continued membership of the European Union. Much as I regretted it, I was among the first to recognise that those of us who wanted to remain had lost the argument.
What the election did nothing to resolve was the nature of the new trading relationships upon which our future prosperity will depend. It was as though we had entered a room with no windows and the lights switched off. In such circumstances a transitional period in which numerous unanswered questions would be resolved was a practical and sensible way forward.
No one could have foreseen that the complex negotiations that were needed to reach an agreement with our neighbours would be submerged in a viral epidemic outside contemporary experience. Every day the government must weigh human lives in balance with economic trauma. It was inevitable that such an immediate calamity would drive the Brexit debate out of the public mind and, indeed, seriously impede the attention of negotiators on both sides of the Channel.
Just as the first glimmers of a possible end to the epidemic in the UK appear and faltering steps out of lockdown are announced, it is incomprehensible that the government has chosen to play a form of Russian roulette with the 27 countries that make up our biggest market. There was no reasonable case to dig in over an end date to the transitional period that was negotiated in vastly different circumstances from those we now find ourselves in.
Millions of our citizens today have no idea about the security of their jobs. Thousands of companies are agonising over employment prospects, investment intentions and the availability of cash. Any new trade deals with America or other world markets would merely put a plaster on the gaping wound created by a no-deal Brexit. Uncertainty remains over a second spike as lockdown is released.
Against such a background, the government should avoid its temptation to appeal to its more xenophobic admirers with a display of macho men indulging in pyrotechnic politics. In our new reality I doubt if such name-calling across the Channel even appeals to those who voted for Brexit. It most certainly does no good at all to our attempts to attract foreign investment or foster new relationships. It must send shudders down the spine of overseas companies such as Nissan wondering what to do about their British base in the European marketplace.
The battle for foreign investment is not a game conducted on public school playing fields. It is ruthlessly fought by governments armed with every trick in the book. Decisions can be taken almost casually. I once met a senior executive of a major international company who had personally been entrusted by his fellow directors to make the final decision for a multimillion investment here in the European market. I asked how he had reached the conclusion. I will never forget his reply.
His directors had narrowed the choice to the UK and one other country. He visited both over the same weekend while suffering from a heavy dose of flu. “Your health service treated me at no cost, while the other country sent me a significant bill. I felt our employees would not have been able to afford such a charge and I chose England.” Overseas investors are looking for locations in Europe’s huge market, and it is our humanity that will in many ways determine our success. They will read our newspapers, listen to politicians’ speeches, and talk widely to people they know as they reach judgments about whether to invest here or opt for the more generous incentives available in Europe.
The decision to leave the European Union demands a realignment of our patterns of international trade while the coronavirus has delivered at least a temporary body blow to our domestic economy. Nothing can frustrate recovery and the necessary adjustments more than the appearance of this country conducting psychological warfare with its neighbours. The threat of a no-deal Brexit does just that and no responsible government should have anything to do with it.