Why Brexit uncertainty will wreak havoc on our manufacturing sector

Both business and unions are uniting on one thing: talk of a no-deal Brexit is detrimental to jobs and investment.

The cracks are starting to appear: UK manufacturers are becoming increasingly exasperated with the government’s apparent inability to avoid a calamitous Brexit. 

The uncertainty at the heart of government is creating widespread insecurity and confusion within both management and the workforce.

There is a constant drip of companies advising Unite shop stewards and conveners that they can’t make investment decisions until the shape of a trade deal with the EU is known – and that planned new products and models may not happen.

Business nerves are on edge – and nowhere more so than in the car industry. 

Toyota became the latest car manufacturer to warn this week that a failure to secure tariff-free access to the European market could result in a rethink about the future of its biggest UK plant.

The call on ministers by the car giant’s executive vice-president Didier Leroy to lift the “fog” around the Brexit negotiations was hinted at earlier this month, when Toyota said its commitment to building the next version of its Auris model at Burnaston was dependent on the government securing a transitional Brexit deal.

Unite warned then that unless the cabinet focuses on delivering the transition period, rather than squabbling among themselves, there was a very real danger that investment in the UK would simply “melt away”.

It doesn’t require an economist to demonstrate what the imposition of trade tariffs on up to 85 per cent of an automaker’s production will do to its competitiveness. Toyota would be hit to that extent – as would others.

A no-deal Brexit will undoubtedly be the worst outcome for the auto sector, and for all areas of manufacturing.

As well as that, aerospace, engineering, agriculture, food and others all require assurance that the government is doing all it needs to do to support them through the EU withdrawal process.

And that it understands that crashing out on to World Trade Organisation rules isn’t an option. WTO terms of trade will be a disaster for our members, who will be forced to pay the cost of tariffs.

And while we are already seeing jobs being lost in many sectors and regions because of Brexit doubt, there is also evidence that opportunistic producers and retailers are using the weakness of the pound as an excuse to raise prices on everyday household items. Many Unite members voted for Britain to leave the EU. But they did not vote to be poorer or have their jobs put at risk.

Yet the no-deal parliamentary zealots – who Theresa May is allowing to call the shots – think that because they say all will be well, it will be.

They brush aside the effects on manufacturing and its supply chains of a cliff-edge Brexit – seemingly committed instead to turning our country into an offshore tax haven based on the service sector.

As if manufacturing jobs are just collateral damage in their determination to complete Thatcher’s experiment.

Our members are not bargaining chips and their livelihoods are not collateral damage. Whatever some ministers may believe, it is their duty to protect jobs.

They cannot blame industry caution, or Brussels, when investment goes elsewhere.

But if it does, we’ll certainly know who to blame – this chaotic, divided government and a prime minister incapable of standing up to and calling out those in her party who put their ideals above the interests of working people.

Both unions and business will be united on that front.

Tony Burke is assistant general secretary at Unite. He tweets here.

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