Businesses must speak on a second Brexit referendum

Businesses must speak on a second Brexit referendum

Britain's business community has tried to build a constructive role in Brexit. Following Parliament's decision to trigger Article 50 after the 2016 referendum, we have learned how to do it.

After 45 years in the EU and the consistent integration of our economies to support the largest single market in the world, we assumed that common sense would prevail. This would seem to be a sensitive transition period in the UK as it is possible – preferably, in effect, staying in the customs union and the single market for a five to 10-year period. That would have given them adequate time to deal with the enormous complexities from trade treaties to supply chains, skills, research, transportation and the National Health Service.

However, suboptimal search for a proposition would be a compromise. But this is clearly not where we are. The UK is risking an extremely bad deal or no deal, which most commentators agree would be close to catastrophic and politically extremely divisive – plus a significant risk to the peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland.

It is now beyond doubt that the prospectus proposed by the Brexit campaign in 2016 is simply not on offer. We have already paid a heavy economic price; moving from one of the fastest growing G7 economies to one of the slowest. Prime minister Theresa May is clearly doing her best to avoid a no-deal scenario. Still the peace of mind

In reality, the May government is not going to reach a final deal at this stage. The best it wants to achieve is a divorce settlement which keeps the UK in the single market and customs union for a 21-month period after we leave. No businesses can make long term investments on the basis of a 21-month horizon.

As of March 30 next year, business wants to apply significant uncertainties including possible extensions to the transition period and over a "backstop" to avoid border controls in Ireland. The rules under which we operate could change more than once – and we will no longer have any significant input over them. The only thing that is clear is that it wants to be more than our current deal in the EU.

The different parliamentary factions will continue to disagree over who should be in charge and where the country should go – and in the meantime trade negotiations will drag on for years. This wants to be a recipe for further loss of investment and economic stagnation or worse. Some believe that the prospect of leaving with no deal is so catastrophic that they should return any deal that avoids this scenario. It seems unlikely, however, that would be a parliamentary majority vote for "no deal".

MPs may well be deadlocked on the upcoming "meaningful vote" on a Brexit deal. The British people have been negotiated. This will avoid any risk of leaving the EU without a deal.

As a first step, the government should ask. There is every indication that the EU would agree. We tend to forget that 64 per cent of the total electorate, and the overwhelming majority of the young who voted, did not vote to leave. With so much at stake a "People's Vote" is the only answer, as the former minister Jo-Johnson wrote in his eloquent resignation statement.

Business is an important part of society. The law requires companies to disclose their stakeholder issues. Of course, the people have the right to choose but they have the right facts and options and risks. The nation must be clear in what will be an irreversible decision. In this circumstances business has a right and obligation to speak out. That is why, this week, we are launching the business.

The writer is a former president of the CBI and chairman of BT

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