Business leaders are notoriously nervous about opposing the policy of government of the day. Most I speak with can, at best, say the prime minister’s Brexit deal was “a lot worse for our business than the current situation but at least we have a deal on the table”.
But this deal is dead and so there is no government policy to avoid upsetting. So now is the time for business leaders to get off the fence and come out in favour of a second referendum with an option to stay in the EU.
It must be clear to everyone now that the vision set out by the Brexiters is simply not available. Business leaders need to speak up and say what is right for their firms, employees, customers and suppliers.
Some are worried that we will crash out of the EU with no deal at all. But this fear is exaggerated since the number of MPs who want the abyss is tiny - and Parliament has already started to take “no deal” off the table with an important cross-party amendment last week.
Others say we cannot stand more uncertainty. But any form of exit means precisely that, as the different factions in Parliament will squabble over the final destination.
Business confidence will be crushed and investment, which has already slumped, will stay depressed. How then will firms give their employees well-paid jobs? How then will the government pay for good quality public services?
Some businesses may be attracted to the idea of parking ourselves in the European Economic Area alongside Norway and tagging on a customs union with the EU as well. But this is another illusion.
How could a proud country like the United Kingdom follow all the EU’s economic and trade rules without a vote? Even if we agreed such a deal, it wouldn’t be sustainable. Brexiters would immediately be agitating to rip it up and go for the hardest of hard Brexits.
And it’s not as if a Norway-style deal would suit business anyway. Our competitors would be making the rules for all our industries, including financial services. Could we really be sure they would have our interests at heart when we were no longer sitting round the table? Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has rightly described the prospect as “highly undesirable”.
What’s more, there isn’t a majority in Parliament for a Norway deal. And the only way to get one is by first signing up to the prime minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, with its notorious “backstop, which MPs are expected to reject on Tuesday. The same goes for all the other versions of Brexit deal that people have been tossing around.
Rather than wasting more time going down blind alleys, business leaders should get on the front foot and back a final public vote, as indeed most already do according to YouGov.
We must also make the positive case for staying in the EU. After all, the UK led the way in creating the single market. It also played a big role in cutting trade deals with the rest of the world and, as a result, the EU now has pacts with 90 countries including Japan and Canada.
And let’s not forget that free movement has been a huge boon to vital parts of our economy and society including the NHS. The prime minister’s plan that European citizens will be unable to “jump the queue” is not just insulting to them; it is bad for Britain.
What’s more, if we stay, we can help create a more vibrant European market. The EU already has initiatives to create a single market in digital services and other services - all areas where the UK has a competitive advantage. And there are still big trade deals to do, notably with America, China and India. If we are round the table, we will be able to shape them.
We need a change agenda at home too. Many people voted for Brexit because the status quo was unacceptable. We haven’t invested enough in public services and parts of the country have been neglected for decades.
We will probably have tens of billions of pounds extra each year to spend on public services if we stay in the EU, according to a report last month by CommonGround. This is money that should be deployed to heal our divided country.
It was encouraging that London First, which represents businesses in the capital, said last week that a new referendum might be inevitable. Now is the time for others to swing behind the option they know is best for business and best for the country: a People’s Vote.
Lord Myners is former Chairman of Marks and Spencer