What the Queen did – and did not – say at the State Opening of Parliament

The Queen’s speech may have been light on content, but it doesn’t make that content any less important.  Unsurprisingly, it was dominated by Brexit bills as the UK starts to define the laws that will govern its exit from the EU. This sense of focus on Brexit was heightened by the removal of several more controversial key Tory policies, indicating both the relative weakness of the Prime Minister’s position in her party and the ongoing negotiations with the DUP to establish a majority.

On Brexit, May is looking to maximise certainty for British businesses and reduce the burden on the UK government of managing the process, by effectively copying and pasting EU Laws into UK Laws and cutting out the bits she doesn’t like. This sounds simple enough. However, the relationship between EU law and UK law is complex, and interwoven, built up over more than 40 years.  One thing is clear – her position in many key areas hasn’t softened. A bill will legislate for the end of free movement from the EU with an indication that only those with high skills, or those in most demand – the ‘best’ and ‘brightest’ – are allowed into the country.

Other Brexit bills include:

  • New nuclear safeguards, with plans for regulation from the UK rather than EU
  • Measures towards an independent trade policy

There were signs that the Government intends to refocus Britain back towards advanced technologies in the wake of Brexit and the financial crash.  Bills to enable commercial spaceflight from the UK and the expansion and regulation of automated and electric vehicles hint that the Government is serious about its Industrial Strategy and cementing the UK’s place as a leading location for the development of these technologies.

Equally, the turbulence and volatility of both Brexit and a hung Parliament do not seem to have undermined the Government’s commitment to invest in HS2.  Powers to build the second phase of the high-speed rail line were included, fast-tracking the ability to deliver the western leg up to Crewe, bringing HS2 within touching distance of Manchester ahead of the original schedule.  Significantly, the Bill included powers to compulsory purchase the land along the new routes required to build HS2 – a crucial element needed to physically deliver such a complex project. These moves should reinforce confidence that the Government still intends to deliver on at least this element of high speed rail for the UK.

Given the dominance of Brexit in the UK Government’s consciousness, it seems incredible to think that we had never heard of Brexit two or three years ago.  But a year is a long time in politics.  It remains to be seen whether Theresa May will still be referred to as the Prime Minister long enough to implement many of the Bills she proposed yesterday.

Will May’s gamble deliver a better Brexit?

Brexit, Trump and a Hung Parliament.  What the business, development and investment community crave is stability.  Yet, as the ripples of the Brexit vote and financial crisis continue, we have precisely the opposite.  Many have questioned the election result. There is a narrative that explains it though, demonstrating that the societal trends exposed by the EU referendum hold true.

Theresa May built her campaign around the ability to force through a hard Brexit against EU negotiators. In doing so she failed to acknowledge two key points revealed by the very vote that made Brexit a reality.

Turnout for the 2015 general election was around 66%, yet for the EU referendum it was over 72%.  That equates to an extra 3 million votes.  In other words, a good number of non-voters in 2015, voted in the 2016 EU referendum.  Who these 3 million are matters.

Younger people from prosperous areas are typically more pro-EU and on the left, yet over recent elections, the young have been far less likely to vote.  It’s likely that part of the extra votes in the EU referendum came from these younger, anti-establishment remain voters. In deprived areas, election turnout is often low, yet support for Brexit was high.  So, it’s likely that part of the extra 3 million in the EU referendum came also from deprived anti-establishment leave voters.

Fast forward to the recent general election and turnout was 68.7%: around half of the extra 3 million votes cast in the EU referendum fell away.  Yet almost half – around 1.6 million – voted again.

Theresa May’s campaign message to deliver a strong Brexit ensured the younger anti-establishment ‘remain’ voters turned out once more against her. What May also failed to recognise was that much of the anti-establishment ‘leave’ vote would revert to not voting.  Add in May’s U-turn on social care, no-shows at TV debates, and a better than predicted Labour performance and you have the result.

For business, the outcome tells us a few things: the tensions between the haves and have-nots aren’t going away – we need the right skills system to help business and young people from all backgrounds to succeed. The result will probably see a more conciliatory approach to Brexit negotiations and access to the single market, better for local manufacturers who export to Europe.

We are unlikely to see an end to uncertainty, which will risk delays to investment – this could be damaging. Finally, we live in a febrile world – for the investment and development community, thoughtful consultation, engagement and communication with stakeholders and communities is more important than ever in ensuring developments go ahead.

Leadership cannot come from government alone

Tasked with writing a column before the general election, knowing that by the time it is published the results will be in, is no easy business. The latest blog from our MD Alexis is the result of such a challenge. Here he explains that, regardless of the election result, private sector businesses need also to step up to a leadership role.

Putting a newspaper together is a complicated business. Columns like mine often have to be written a week in advance. That is a challenge this month as I want to write about the result of the general election before the election takes place. I am not about to make any predictions but I know one thing for certain. The voice from local business needs to be a strong and powerful influence on whoever is elected.

Leadership cannot come alone from our politicians. The government is facing unprecedented financial pressures. Whether you are in favour of more or less public spending you cannot deny one thing: the amount of debt owed by our country has grown tremendously and continues to grow. Our government spends more than it receives. Coupled with Brexit and the terrible challenges we face around security and terrorism, one thing is clear: any UK government is going to be under pressure from day one.

Business has a vital role to play in sharing the burden. Not just big business but every business, in every town and every city across the land. Business can provide the leadership on those key issues that will shape our economy for years to come. How do we generate more jobs? How do we attract more investment? How do we deal with Brexit? All of these questions can only be answered sensibly if businesses have a strong and powerful voice in the debate.

Politicians need to listen but businesses need to step up and be heard. As ever, Sheffield leads the way. In our own city we have a strong and active Chamber of Commerce. We have the private sector-led Business Improvement District that is investing thousands in improving our city centre. I have recently been involved in setting up the Sheffield Property Association. The first Association outside of London to represent the organisations that own and invest in buildings across our city. Together they invest billions in our local economy and will be a strong and powerful voice to drive investment and economic growth.

The morning after the election all eyes will be on Westminster, but it is worth remembering that leadership needs to come from us all; businesses included.