British business frustrated by 20 minute Brexit call with government

LONDON — Business leaders were left frustrated Tuesday by a call with the U.K. government about preparedness for the Brexit transition that lasted just over 20 minutes.

The videoconference, hosted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, was attended by 250 business leaders.

The meeting centered on the readiness of British companies for the U.K.’s exit from the EU single market and customs union on December 31, and comes after increasingly vocal complaints from industry, which argues most U.K. firms aren’t ready and can’t cope with the combined shock of a no-deal exit and the coronavirus pandemic this winter.

Two participants complained the meeting was “very short” — the prime minister took part for 15 minutes and the entire call lasted just 23 minutes.

They also said the discussion lacked information on the state of play of Brexit talks, beyond Johnson reiterating his opposition to resuming negotiations with the EU after January 1, 2021, if no deal on the future relationship is reached this year. One participant from the manufacturing sector noted the call felt more “like a monologue” than a conversation and that “a more sustained discussion” was required.

However, a senior industry executive said the complaints were “a bit harsh,” adding that Johnson and Gove tried to convey that they were aware of the challenges business face and the impact coronavirus has had on Brexit preparations. 

“I think both PM and CDL [the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Gove] were more sympathetic than they are being given credit for,” he said. “What did they expect? PM and CDL to complete everyone’s EORI [a unique ID code used to track and register customs information in the EU] and VAT applications there and then introduce them to a customs broker?”

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, proposed the government create a joint taskforce of ministers and industry representatives, with the aim of accelerating preparations for the end of the Brexit transition.

The CBI’s proposal was enthusiastically welcomed by Johnson, according to several participants, although the prime minister replied that Gove, who is in charge of no-deal Brexit preparations, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Alok Sharma would have to consider it. Details such as membership or frequency of meetings were not discussed.

Gove also agreed to ask the Treasury about proposal from the Federation of Small Businesses to create transition vouchers to help SMEs fund training and technology needed to operate after the Brexit transition. An FSB spokesperson said the organization wants grants worth up to £3,000 for small firms that trade internationally.

According to a statement released to journalists afterwards, Johnson told leaders: “It is vital that everybody on this call takes seriously the need to get ready, because whatever happens — whether it’s Canada or Australia — change is going to happen [at the end of the transition period.”

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