Government consultation on the economy presents opportunity for businesses to shape policy after Brexit

There was much focus on the Supreme Court last week, where judges upheld a ruling that MPs must be given a vote on Britain leaving the European Union. The result was that parliament remains sovereign. But for all the fuss, the decision changes little: Brexit will still go ahead because only a minority of MPs want to defy the referendum result, or “the will of the people”, as Theresa May refers to it.

The timetable for exit also remains unchanged. Mrs May plans to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, and on Thursday legislation was published to set this commitment in law. But for now there are few other details on the government’s direction. We must wait for a white paper, which the prime minister has promised “in due course”; this could be before or after MPs vote, but probably not imminently.

For a better understanding of what Brexit will mean, the publication last  week of a green paper on the government’s long-awaited industrial strategy was a more important event. The strategy’s intention is to improve living standards and economic growth across the country, which sounds laudable, if familiar. But behind the bluster, the paper’s vague pronouncements and management guru-speak came off extremely woolly, and the reception to it was not overwhelmingly positive.

The Financial Times reported the strategy was met with only “faint praise”. And one commentator suggested it was a relief that it “didn’t add up to a hill of beans”. This is because previous governments’ industrial strategies, over a period of decades, have not had great success (think of the “picking winners” approach of the 1970s and Peter Mandelson’s ill-fated “industrial activism” in the last days of New Labour). That this industrial strategy was launched in a week when it was claimed £500m is wasted in Whitehall on rehashed policies was surely coincidental.

Things are different now, though. The imminence of Brexit means that where governments were previously asked not to interfere in business, companies are now looking for a wider series of policies than ever before. And with the recent confirmation that Britain will leave the single market – an issue on which many large firms and trade bodies had been lobbying – attention has switched to what the government will do on the detail. This includes a wide range of issues such as market access for goods and services, tariffs and trade, skilled workers, growing the science base and corporate governance.

So while the green paper does not yet have answers, it provides an important opportunity for businesses of all sectors and sizes to get involved in finding them. And there appears little reason for many not do so; subjects on which advice is being sought include driving growth across the whole country, encouraging trade and inward investment, and creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places. Furthermore, with “sector deals” one of the things in the offing, now is the time for businesses to get involved – either through the consultation or by other means – or instead risk their competitors getting a better deal than them.

Written by Simon Hodges, Head of Public Policy (@SimonDHodges)

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