'Rishi Sunak told me Brexit would be amazing - now four independent businesses in our home town are closing'
Jo Foster has asked her MP, Rishi Sunak, three times for help with her businesses struggling after Brexit. She told Politics Editor Ralph Blackburn he needs to face up to reality.
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Not long after the EU referendum, small business owner Jo Foster went to see her MP Rishi Sunak.
The current Prime Minister was at the time a junior minister in the Local Government department, having succeeded William Hague in the North Yorkshire seat of Richmond in 2015. Embattled premier Theresa May was on the television talking about the Northern Ireland border, and Jo remembers Sunak was half-watching while working in his constituency office.
She put her two business cards on the table, one for an innovation company and another for a wellness firm, and asked: “How do I stop Brexit damaging my two businesses?” Jo remembers the current Prime Minister rolling his eyes, and replying: “What do you do? I’m very confident everything is going to be amazing.”
Five years on, three businesses in Richmond have closed with immediate effect, including Ravensworth Nurseries, which has traded for 57 years, while York House antiques has said it will be closing at Christmas.
Paul Harrison, chair of the Original Richmond Business and Tourism Association, said: “I think the environment that has been created for businesses now is the most difficult I’ve ever known. It is the combination of all these different things and, yes, Brexit is part of the formula.
"People don’t want to talk about Brexit and I don’t understand why. Even the most straightforward thing like the exchange rate – anything that has been imported, including food, has been impacted by Brexit."
Jo agrees, saying: “Businesses are shutting for multiple reasons, one of which is Brexit. All the regulations are coming in, and it’s hitting people who weren’t even concerned about it.
“Every single cost has gone up because of Brexit. With my aromatherapy business, oils I have to buy grow in France, so there’s an impact on the supply chain side.
“I have had to put an EU address as well as a UK address on packaging, so I had to have someone in Ireland I paid to effectively be my agent. We’ve pretty much had to pull the plug on selling our products into the EU due to the extra cost and time.
“With my service industry firm, I work with clients around the world so freedom of movement is important.”
While the CEO of British Independent Retailers Association, Andrew Goodacre, has said nearly all independent businesses who trade with Europe have seen profit losses due to Brexit.
Since that first meeting, Jo has had two more conversations with the Leave-supporting Prime Minister - but both times he’s denied Brexit is having a negative impact. To be blunt, I think he’s got his head stuck in the sand.
The second time Jo spoke to Sunak, he was Chancellor and joined a Zoom call during the Covid pandemic with six local independents, who were members of the business association. All relied on the EU for imports or exports, but Jo says the government website was sending them round in circles.
She remembers: “He just said: ‘If Europe is causing you a problem, you need to go and talk to your European counterparts because they’re the ones being difficult.’ He couldn’t give two hoots.”
Sunak responded by saying: "Jo and I, as you can probably tell, don’t share the same politics. We’ve had healthy debates on Brexit in the past, she was very upset that I supported Brexit - however I think that was the right thing to do."
He again denied that Brexit was “the reason that some businesses are struggling at the moment”, pointing instead to energy bills and inflation, which he said were “now coming down”.
On Friday, again, the government ignored Brexit, the elephant in the room when it comes to our stagnant economy. On the Today Programme, Treasury minister John Glen was asked whether he would “accept the impact that Brexit has played on our low growth?”
Glen, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, merely said: “We made a decision on Brexit years ago, and I think the country wants us to address the situation we face now.” Accused of glossing over Brexit, he responded: “The country made a decision and my job as a government minister is to do everything I can to maximise growth of the economy.”
The problem is by avoiding answering the question or facing up to reality, there can be no long term solution. Jo agrees: “We can’t pretend it never happened and unless you admit where you’re at, things are not going to get better.”
The chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility, Richard Hughes, has said the impact of Brexit on the UK economy is on the same magnitude as the Covid pandemic and energy crisis. He’s estimated that “in the long run, [Brexit] reduces our overall output by around 4 per cent compared to had we remained in the EU”.
While Goodacre, CEO of BIRA, said the new requirements are “pretty horrible” for small businesses to navigate. Across the country businesses are closing their doors, due to a combination of increased energy bills, rent and extra expenses on red tape.
In different areas, the government is quietly reversing or ignoring Brexit promises. Businesses will still be able to use the CE product safety mark, instead of a new UK version, due to it - you guessed it - increasing costs and red tape.
The post-Brexit checks on fresh produce coming from the EU have been delayed again, due to concerns that the extra checks could increase prices and fuel inflation. And Sunak is reportedly close to agreeing a deal to rejoin the Horizon science funding programme, ditching the proposed UK-only Pioneer scheme.
Ignoring the reality could also affect Sunak politically, pollsters YouGov found that "Bregret" - Brexit regret - currently stands at its highest recorded level after the referendum. According to YouGov, 57% of voters believed Brexit was a mistake while just 32% thought Brexit was the correct decision. YouGov also found a majority of voters, 51%, now want to rejoin the EU.
Jo is already planning her fourth encounter with Sunak about the impact of Brexit on small business: “He won’t be able to avoid me at the hustings.” Maybe by then the Prime Minister will have got his head out of the sand.