Be Bold, Think Global…and long live the single market

The Manufacturer’s Editor-at-Large, Nick Peters reflects on his recent interview with Jim McColl and Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit tightrope walk.

Catriona, the new ferry recently launched by the Ferguson Yard on the Clyde, bought out of closure by Jim McColl’s Clyde Blowers Group - image courtesy of Clyde Blowers Group.
Catriona, the new ferry recently launched by the Ferguson Yard on the Clyde, bought out of closure by Jim McColl’s Clyde Blowers Group – image courtesy of Clyde Blowers Group.

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim McColl, the legendary Scottish businessman who has started building ships once more on the Clyde.

McColl took the Clyde Blowers company from a struggling engineering firm in 1992 to a global business that has interests all across the world (the interview will appear in the November issue of The Manufacturer and will subsequently appear here at themanufacturer.com)

Inevitably, I asked McColl about what he wants out of Brexit. After all, his company’s semi-official motto Be Bold, Think Global sounds very much like a Hard Brexit rallying cry.

I was quite surprised when he said, with some confidence, that he anticipated an ultimate deal between the UK and EU that retains access to the single market.

Passport Stock Image
Prime Minister Theresa May has signalled that immigration was the key issue in the Brexit negotiations.

Two days after he and I spoke, Prime Minister Theresa May signalled that immigration was the key issue in the Brexit negotiations, due to begin in Q2 2017 once Article 50 has been invoked, not the single market. Either Jim McColl is going to be disappointed or something else is going on here.

The Conservative Party Conference is in full swing in Birmingham, and the Brexiteers are in their pomp. They not only won the referendum vote (although in the case of Boris Johnson, he patently didn’t expect to, or even want to) but the new government is making all the right noises about the future – that it belongs to them, not to the compromisers of the Remain camp.

Mrs May gives every impression of having decided that the only way is Right Out, despite her quietly expressed desire during the campaign to Remain, but what do the politics tell us?

To say anything else would have courted disaster for the new unelected PM, who will not be seeking a personal mandate until 2020. She doesn’t have the freedom that Chancellor Philip Hammond enjoys to equivocate about the wisdom of life on the outside.

Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer.
PM Theresa May doesn’t have the freedom that Chancellor Philip Hammond enjoys to equivocate about the wisdom of life on the outside.

She must hold true to the Outers course because to do otherwise would precipitate yet another row inside her party and risk her joining the list of Tory leaders to be consumed by Europe.

That does not mean she will not be seeking a deal that will satisfy Jim McColl, but it does mean she will be walking the highest of high wires, in the face of a wary Brexit camp on one side and an increasingly hostile EU on the other.

The UK is losing friends on the Continent and there seems to be a bottom line at government level that the UK will not be allowed to enjoy an equally advantageous post-Brexit relationship with the EU as it does currently. There must be pain, pour encourager les autres.

This offers little to applaud for the manufacturing sector, unless Mrs May does indeed do a deal that allows the possession of cake and its consumption. From where she is on her high wire, our only option would appear to be to hold our breath, and hope she gets to the other side without being tipped off by her party’s emboldened right wing. Hang onto your hat.