Britain after Brexit, Gerry Grimstone said, wanted to win the race on electric cars. Attracting foreign investment, he told Politico last June, was “one of the most globally competitive sports that there is” but electric cars were a route to re-establishing the UK “as one of the leading auto manufacturers in the world”.
Leaving aside the pub quiz question of who Gerry Grimstone is – a Conservative peer, former Barclays chair and short-lived junior trade minister under Boris Johnson, if you must – it begs the question: how is that working out?
At the weekend it emerged China’s BYD, the world’s largest seller of electric and hybrid cars, will not consider building its first European car factory in the UK because of the impact of Brexit. Rather, the firm, which is targeting sales of about 800,000 cars a year in Europe by 2030, has shortlisted locations in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Spain.
“As an investor we want a country to be stable,” Michael Shu, BYD’s European president, told the Financial Times. “To open a factory is a decision for decades. Without Brexit, maybe. But after Brexit, we don’t understand what happened.” The UK had not even made a top 10 list of possible locations to build its first European car plant, he added. “The UK doesn’t have a very good solution. Even on the long list we didn’t have the UK.”
The UK has struggled to attract investment from electric vehicle companies since Brexit, with Tesla also citing leaving the EU for its decision to bypass it in favour of Germany. Several established carmakers in the UK are also facing crucial decisions over their plants this year.
And it follows the collapse of UK battery start-up Britishvolt, which had planned to build a giant factory to make electric car batteries in Blyth, Northumberland but struggled to turn a profit and ran out of money. It had been hailed by ministers as a “levelling-up” opportunity that would boost the region’s economy and support the future of UK car making.
“My goodness, what prospects lie ahead of us for young people now: to be out there buccaneering, trading, dominating the world again,” boasted Iain Duncan Smith in January 2021 as the Brexit transition period ended. He might still be right, but they may increasingly have to do so by pushbike.
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