- Theresa May tells business to be optimistic about Brexit but says government will not shield them from change.
- The prime minister promises business certainty over Brexit “as soon as possible”.
- CBI chief hits out at Brexit “soap opera.”
- Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft faces questions over tax avoidance.
- May will also speak out about growing sexual harassment scandal.
LONDON — Theresa May has told British businesses to look forward to life after Brexit with “rational optimism,” but urged them to be “realistic” about how long it will take to form a new trading relationship with the EU.
Speaking at the CBI conference in London on Monday morning, the prime minister told leading business chiefs that there were “huge opportunities” to be had in the coming years.
“As we look ahead to the next ten years for Britain’s economy, we should do so as rational optimists,” she said.
“There are huge opportunities ahead. Making the most of them will demand hard work, imagination, and commitment.”
May added: “Our job now is to look to the future. If the last ten years have seen us weathering the storm of the financial crisis rebuilding our fiscal and economic position, the next ten years must see the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the British economy.”
However, she said that Britain needed to be “realistic” about how long it will take to work out its new long-term relationship with the EU.
“We should be excited by the possibilities which this new relationship presents for the future, just as we are realistic in acknowledging that it will take time to finalise.
“I have made clear that a strictly time-limited implementation period will be crucial to our future success. I know how important it is for business and industry not to face a cliff-edge and to have the time it needs to plan and prepare for the new arrangements.
“During this period our access to one another’s markets should continue on current terms, and I want us to agree the detailed arrangements for this period as early as possible. But we should also be able to develop our relationships with countries outside the EU in new ways, including through our own trade negotiations.”
May’s speech follows calls from CBI president Paul Drechsler for May to “get on” with Brexit and implement a clear strategy for leaving the EU.
“Business has a responsibility to speak up and suggest solutions when we see obstacles in the way of UK prosperity. Currently, we see one major challenge — not Brexit itself: we’re 100% committed to making a success of it. But the approach to Brexit,” Drechsler said.
“We need a single, clear strategy. A plan for what we want, and what kind of relationship we seek with the EU.
“At the moment, I’m reminded of a prime-time soap opera, with a different episode each week…”
“Time is of the essence. We must leave behind the episodic approach and take this opportunity to move forward as one — business and politicians, here and abroad. “
May: We will not shield business from Brexit
As Brexit negotiations remain in “deadlock” over the size of Britain’s divorce bill, May promised business leaders that her government would move onto the next phase of negotiations “as quickly as possible.”
She said: “Our EU negotiating team is now preparing for the next phase, and I particularly welcome the beginning of internal discussions among the EU 27 about their position on our future relationship and the implementation period. When sufficient progress is agreed we want to move as quickly as possible on both of these issues.
“Throughout this process, I have been determined to give business and industry as much certainty as possible. Achieving that maximum certainty was the first objective I set in my Lancaster House speech in January and it has remained fundamental to the Government’s negotiations to date.
However, she warned that the government would not step in to protect business as they faced this “new chapter” after Brexit.
“We cannot — and will not try — to make a plan for every corner of our economy,” she told business chiefs.
“We believe in the free market and won’t attempt to shield the economy from market forces. So we will have to make strategic decisions about where the government can — and where it cannot — best support key sectors of our economy.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will also address the conference later on Monday morning. He is expected to urge business to do pay their fair share of tax, following the ‘Paradise papers’ revelations on Sunday.
The papers suggest that Conservative peer and donor Lord Ashcroft has used offshore tax havens in order to avoid tax.
Watch Lord Ashcroft hide in a toilet from tax questions
Amid growing allegations of sexual harassment at the top of the Conservative party, May also promised that she would “act decisively” to clear up the scandal.
She said there needs to be “a new culture of respect at the centre of our public life” and promised to “act decisively, without fear or favour, to guarantee a safe and respectful working environment for everyone in the future.”
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