Those who predicted disaster might point to the counterfactual: Johnson did indeed secure a free trade deal with the EU. Had he not, perhaps Nissan’s plans for Britain would have panned out differently. But there are reasons to doubt this: not only did the cliff-edge scenarios never come to pass, but reported contingency plans from February 2020 (denied by Nissan) suggested that in the case of a no-deal Brexit, it would not be retreating from the UK, but doubling down on its Sunderland operations instead.
The timeline of catastrophic predictions could be chalked up as hilarious, if they hadn’t been looming over thousands of workers in the Sunderland plant for years (and an additional 70,000 workers connected to its supply chains).
The politicisation of their livelihoods has not aged well: former MP Anna Soubry described Nissan’s decision to abandon the X-Trail SUV as “Brexit reality” rather than the company’s decision to weigh up the future of diesel and invest instead in a green alternative. Meanwhile Andrew Adonis’s grave warning at the start of the year that there would be “no new investment or new models” directed to Sunderland proved false within weeks.
It would seem – despite the constant fear-mongering spouted throughout the transition years – Nissan continues to position itself firmly on the home team’s side. But there are bigger lessons to be learnt by the Nissan saga, more important than taking Armageddon predictions with a very large pinch of salt.
The creep of corporate welfare started long before the pandemic, and Nissan was no exception. It was within the car manufacturer’s interest to try to get all they could out of the Brexit process, but it was the Government’s responsibility not to budge. The £60m handout to Nissan under Theresa May will have only encouraged corporate rent-seeking, and may help to explain why the threats escalated in the years following.
Handouts from government to business risk increasing as the country recovers from Covid-19. During the 2019 election Johnson pledged to provide more generous state aid to floundering businesses, using taxpayer money. Then the bailout of disastrously run airline Flybe in January 2020 proved they were willing to act on their newfound interventionist principles.
Now Whitehall is emerging from the pandemic eyeing up a more hands-on state. This is likely to translate to a more protectionist attitude, especially around what it views as key industries, to make sure they stay afloat.
But Nissan teaches the opposite lesson: with every opportunity to roll back its UK operation during lockdown, the company decided instead to cut its production in Barcelona and Indonesia and further invest here. This shows faith in the UK’s economic rebound and its prospects post-Brexit.
That faith is rooted in good policy and data: the Chancellor’s temporary super-deduction for business sends the UK soaring up the OECD’s competitiveness index, giving companies the opportunity to invest in their equipment and witness the returns. The OECD has once again upgraded its forecasts for the UK’s recovery, now estimated to be more than 7pc growth this year alone.
This is where Britain’s strength lies: creating not a giveaway state, but a pro-growth hub where industry can thrive. Both Brexit and pandemic recovery provide opportunity for more policy overhaul to make the country emphatically pro- business. No reason to give into the doomsayers now.