Brexit: Looking for Leaders

The need for compromise and the danger of complacency
by Dafydd Rees

It’s a real pity that Theresa May and her Cabinet weren’t able to be in the audience for last week’s inaugural lecture in Newgate Communications’ Leadership Principle series. Professor Stefan Stern, author of the newly published book “How to be a Better Leader,” had some simple but sage advice on the right approach Business leaders must adopt to overcome adversity.

“Face the brutal truth. Learn to live in hope.” Westminster is in chaos. Cabinet ministers are in open revolt against their own Prime Minister. In business, this is the moment when the Board and shareholders intervene to clear out the entire management floor to start all over again.

Britain is in danger of losing its way. In terms of reputation management, this is the time of maximum danger and we’re in desperate need for leaders. It’s the Government, and Parliament’s job to sort it out together and quick.

The chances of an accidental catastrophe are growing thanks to a heady combination of deception and incompetence. Theresa May’s determination to continue bringing back her deal despite successive defeats in parliament flies in the face of good leadership communications practice.

The widespread acknowledgement of the economic damage, both short and long term of any “No Deal” Brexit is a certainty. If you don’t believe me, listen to the stark warning the Chancellor’s delivered in his Spring Statement.

A new tariff regime in the event of a “No Deal” Brexit which would involve a major shift from non- EU countries has been announced by the UK Government. According to the Director General of the CBI there’s been no consultation with business whatsoever. In Carolyn Fairbairn’s words, “this is no way to run a country.”

The second comprehensive parliamentary defeat for Theresa May’s deal felt like the end of something. Yet the 29th March 2019 EU exit date is a stark legal reality. Britain is leaving the EU come what may. (No pun intended).

All of the votes being discussed in the Commons are advisory. Legislation would be needed to change the direction of the UK’s course out of the European Union. It’s an open question as to whether any decision taken in the coming days can be enacted into law in the few weeks left before the looming prospect of March 29th    or indeed whether Europe’s leaders will listen.

Brexit has already damaged Britain. UK business investment has declined for four consecutive quarters. We now know the reality of Brexit. It won’t build more houses or schools or provide more NHS beds.

The entire British political class appears to have forgotten its duty of care to the UK’s services economy, which represents close to 80% of our national output and is central to UK growth and our economic future.

Party discipline has collapsed within both main parties, yet the impasse continues. Backbenchers continue to seek to take the initiative.

But if the past three years of political upheaval have shown us anything it is that the Government’s initiative and consent is essential to any solution.

Cross-party talks have not been meaningful so far. Attempts at indicative votes have failed. It’s time to try again. The 2016 referendum told us what we didn’t want, not what we did want as a nation from Brexit.

Remainers still have to choose between a second referendum and a soft Brexit, similar to the deal the EU already has with Norway. It’s worth saying that any second referendum or “People’s Vote” is more a process than a solution. The question on the ballot paper depends on the outcome of any negotiation within Westminster and with Brussels.

Many Brexiteers are pinning their hopes on the deal termed the Malthouse Compromise which appears to centre around negotiating a free trade agreement, new technology to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland and a long extension to the transition period.

Whatever happens the case for delay is clear. The Civil Service has been signalling for months that the complexity of the process means this country just isn’t ready to leave the EU.

I’ve been told there are voices in the Cabinet arguing for the date of the UK’s legal exit from the EU be moved to December 2020, whatever the difficulties of navigating the UK fielding candidates for the European Parliamentary elections due in May.

Theresa May’s leadership may soon be a matter for the history books. She failed to recognise the consequences of the 2017 General Election, which left her without a Commons majority to realise her vision of Brexit means Brexit.

She then failed to seek a consensus, delayed and delayed negotiations and then tried to deny Parliament a vote. She’s lost an entire front bench of ministers along the way.

I always like to give some grounds for optimism. But in this case I have only this thought to offer. This has been the easy part.

Anyone who thinks this is an issue to be resolved in the coming days and weeks is in for a rude shock. We are merely at the start of the attempt to disentangle the UK from the EU. The size and scale of the complexity involved in the UK leaving the EU beggars belief.

There are years of negotiation ahead. While the media may be preoccupied with lorry queues at Dover, hundreds of major issues remain unresolved from data flows to security co-operation, from trade deals to scientific research to medical supplies.

We are also dispensing with an array of institutions that have done more good than harm, in areas such as environmental protection and regional policy. This is the work of a generation to complete.

Let’s not allow complacency or boredom to blind Britain to the realities and the dangers of Brexit.

If Brexit has achieved anything, it’s shown our concept of political leadership is broken. My suggestion is that our politicians to turn for inspiration to leadership experts such as Elke Edwards, founder of professional and personal development consultancy, Ivy House. She is part of a movement to champion new ways of thinking for a new generation for business and society at large. It’s time for Theresa May to listen, learn and lead. Fresh thinking and compromise are sorely needed.

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