Boris Johnson warned by business chiefs: 'clean break' Brexit could hit British jobs and exports

Boris Johnson alarmed business leaders today by demanding a clean break from the “stockade” of European Union rules to let Britons “do our own thing” after Brexit.

The Foreign Secretary mocked fears about leaving the EU, saying it would not mean “some autarkic 1950s menu of spam and cabbage and liver” nor a “great V sign from the cliffs of Dover”.

But the core of his keynote speech was to dismiss fears expressed by firms – and Chancellor Philip Hammond – that exporters would be cut out of their biggest market of 500 million European customers.

“In a world that demands flexibility and agility, we should be thinking not of EU standards but of global standards, and a regulatory framework to suit the particular needs of the UK,” he said.

Boris Johnson’s big Brexit speech in 60 seconds

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Addressing nervous business groups, he said: “To those who worry about coming out of the customs union or the single market – please bear in mind that the economic benefits of membership are nothing like as conspicuous or irrefutable as is sometimes claimed.” 

Countries like the US were increasing exports to the EU twice as fast as Britain, despite being outside both, he argued. New industries like high tech would thrive better if not “lashed” to EU rules that British voters felt powerless to alter or update.

The Foreign Secretary mocked fears about leaving the EU, saying it would not mean “some autarkic 1950s menu of spam and cabbage and liver” (Reuters)

“In a global marketplace, where we are trading in products that hadn’t been conceived even five years ago, serving markets that were poverty stricken only 20 years ago, it seems extraordinary that the UK should remain lashed to the minute prescriptions of a regional trade bloc comprising only six per cent of humanity – and when it is not possible for us or any EU nation to change those rules on our own.”

Mr Johnson’s speech, called Uniting for a Great Britain, called for Leavers and Remainers to unite under a banner of “confidence and national self-belief”.

Extending a rhetorical olive branch to supporters of EU membership, he said Brexit would not mean a race to the bottom or a “hostile” clampdown on immigration.

“It was my proudest boast as Mayor of London that we had 400,000 French men and women in the British capital – high-earning and high-spending types,” he said.

“We must remain a magnet for ambition and drive.”

But his unequivocal call for Britain to set its own regulations and standards drew immediate warnings from the EU that such divergence could become barriers to free trade.

The Confederation of British Industry warned against a “bonfire” of rules that could endanger exports and jobs.  The Institute of Directors warned that firms “can’t operate on warm words alone”, while London First pleaded for “action” to protect growth rather than “warm words”.

Senior Tories opposed to a hard Brexit accused Mr Johnson of talking “piffle” and said the Government needed to speed up vital decisions on Britain’s relations outside the EU.

John Foster, CBI director of campaigns, said: “Businesses aren’t looking for a bonfire of regulation – quite the opposite – our aerospace, automotive and chemical sectors, to name a few, all have highly integrated European supply chains that benefit from consistent regulation.

The data economy – worth £240 billion – needed alignment of rules to help firms in the sector grow to their potential, he added. Mr Johnson, however, said high-tech was one area where UK innovators should be free to “do things differently”.

Edwin Morgan, Director of Policy at the Institute of Directors, complained at the lack of detail from the Government. “They are still largely in the dark about what relationship will replace their current full level of access to the EU,” he said. 

“Of course we need our political leaders to be positive about the future, but business leaders can’t operate on warm words alone.”

John Dickie, director of strategy and policy at London First, said: “The inclusive tone is welcome but business needs action. Theresa May appears to be backtracking on the rights of EU citizens and the need for a transition agreement is now urgent. We need swift decisions from a united government that will support jobs and growth, not warm words.”

Businesswoman Nicola Horlick, at Best for Britain, welcomed Mr Johnson’s tone, in particular his declaration that it was not enough to tell Remainers they lost, “so get on with it”.

“I am not an ideologue and nor are many of my business colleagues,” she said. “We are deeply concerned about the impact that Brexit of any sort will have.  London is currently the world’s financial centre and that position is now under threat.”

But senior Tories who want a closer trade relationship with the EU after Brexit said Mr Johnson had given no clues about how trade could carry on as before.

Nicky Morgan, the chair of the powerful Treasury Select Committee, said: “It’s just more platitudes – and to borrow his language, piffle. Lofty sentiments but no meat on the bones.

“The real test is how this is going to help, say, a British food exporter know how to comply with EU regulations in 2019. 

“It is the lack of detail from the Foreign Secretary that is truly worrying.”

Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said the speech was “disappointing … it tried to close down legitimate areas of debate by saying these were resolved in the referendum when the majority were not.”

Ex Transport Minister Stephen Hammond said:  “I was hoping for insight and appeal which could unite the country. Unfortunately this speech doesn’t contain a plan or a policy which does that.”

Former Business Minister Anna Soubry said: “Boris doesn’t get it. So called Remainers have moved on. Most have accepted the result – their motivation now is to mitigate the damage Brexit will do to our economy. That’s why support is growing for EFTA and the Customs Union. Johnson’s speech will fuel fears not allay anxieties as he is essentially making the case for the Hard Brexit people do not want – and there’s no majority for it in Parliament.”

From Brussels, senior MEP Guy Verhofstadt warned: “Putting up barriers to the movement of trade and people & suggesting that the identity of citizens can only be national is not liberal – it’s quite the opposite.”

Lib Dem spokesman Tom Brake said: “If this speech was supposed to offer an olive branch to Remainers, Boris must have picked up the other version.”

Labour MP Yvette Cooper warned: “The Government cannot keep kicking the can down the road, we’ve got to actually have some practical details on it.”

PLEASE KEEP  Senior Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, an ally of Mr Johnson, said the speech was aimed at those who felt “alienated and angry” about the referendum result.

“He knows that a number of people feel kind of alienated and angry about the result and that’s not something that any Leaver should feel good about,” he told BBC Radio 4.

“We want to try and carry as many people with us, it was a narrow outcome, it was a 48/52 vote that means we should try and find a consensus that both sides can at least live with.”

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, an Vote Leave ally of Mr Johnson, said the speech was aimed at those who felt “alienated and angry” about the referendum result.

“He knows that a number of people feel kind of alienated and angry about the result and that’s not something that any Leaver should feel good about,” he told BBC Radio 4.

“We want to try and carry as many people with us, it was a narrow outcome, it was a 48/52 vote that means we should try and find a consensus that both sides can at least live with.”

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