Imagine you are Matt O’Flynn, managing director of the sofa-making firm Collins and Hayes.
You have just been named “UK Furniture Manufacturer of the Year” for 2016 by Interiors Monthly, the Oscars of sofas.
You are a key supplier to John Lewis, the most-beloved sofa-retailer in the country. And Home Secretary Amber Rudd did a press trip to your factory, because you’re a paragon of quality British manufacturing.
You’re feeling pretty good about yourself!
And then, to your surprise, Rudd says she wants to “flush out” companies who employ immigrants rather than British workers, and she goes on Radio 4 to say this about you:
“I went and visited a factory quite recently where they recruit almost exclusively, they explained to me, from Romania, and Poland, where they have people there who have experience in factories, building these sofas that they have. They didn’t even consider training locally. There was a local college they could have worked with but they choose to recruit from outside the UK.”
After he heard this, Flynn told the Telegraph and the Today show that, in fact, the company had been located in Britain for 140 years, that its staff is 75% British, and that it only recruits foreign workers when there are sudden surges in demand because that’s how you run a factory properly.
Rudd is Flynn’s local MP, if you want a gauge of how deeply that knife is sticking into his back.
That’s what it’s like running a business in the UK right now. The Conservatives are supposed to be the pro-business party. But prime minister Theresa May charted a surprisingly anti-business agenda at the Tory party conference this week. Consider:
- May appears to be favouring a swift, hard Brexit — which for UK business is the worst outcome.
- Lobbyists for the City of London believe she is prepared to walk away from Europe without securing the financial passporting rights that give banks in the UK trading access to the continent.
- Home Secretary Amber Rudd says she may require businesses to disclose the number of foreign workers they employ. The idea horrifies employers, not least because of the extra paperwork involved.
- Trade secretary Liam Fox is reportedly prepared to abandon the customs union, which allows UK firms to trade with the EU without tariffs, paperwork or barriers.
- The IMF has shaved a full point off the UK’s expected GDP growth because of the above.
As Diana Paredes, the co-founder of regulatory tech firm Suade, told us recently, “If you’re an entrepreneur, why would you set up in the UK now?
There is a lot to like about May’s agenda for business in Britain. Only the most swivel-eyed Randian could object when she used her speech to call out Sir Philip Green, the buyout tycoon who crashed BHS and cratered its pension plan:
“So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra, a household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism, a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust, I’m putting you on warning: This can’t go on anymore. A change has got to come.”
But her government seems to have a disdain for the single market, a misunderstanding of why companies need foreign workers (and the ability to send their own talent abroad), and a genuine ignorance about the way immigration contributes to GDP growth.
The Financial Times’ Jonathan Guthrie put it best:
“They identify with small businesses based in Maidstone rather than Mayfair. … ‘The government is unmoved by the fear that a relatively small number of people will end up with relatively smaller yachts,’ says one Tory spinner.”
It’s easy to laugh at the “yacht” problem. But all our boats, big and small, float on the same tide. So it is worrying when the government doesn’t seem to care that the tide is going out.
This is an editorial. The opinions and conclusions expressed above are those of the author.
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