Brexit minister grilled at Lancashire business conference

Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng speaking at the Brexit for Business Conference hosted by the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce.
Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng speaking at the Brexit for Business Conference hosted by the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce.
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Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng  got a hot Lancashire reception when he opened a major business conference in Preston.

The under secretary from the Department for Exiting the EU was the keynote speaker at the Brexit for Business Conference, organised by the North and Western Chamber of Commerce at the Guild Hall.

Delegates at the Guild Hall Brexit conference

Delegates at the Guild Hall Brexit conference

Dawn Cheetham, president of the chamber, welcomed delegates from across the county. Mrs Cheetham, who owns Blackpool based Commercial Kitchen Services said the business community desperately wanted the politicians to bring to an end the damaging uncertainty that a delayed Brexit had brought.

She said it was a tough period for everyone in business with concerns over Britain's and the global economy and said: "We want to restore our hard won reputation as a great place to do business."

She added that the Government needed to commit after Brexit to giving business a stable training system, an effective immigration policy, better transport infrastructure and digital network, energy security and helping business to grown markets overseas.

Kwasi Kwarteng spoke next and admitted Britain was entering into uncharted waters as no country had undergone the process of leaving the EU like this.

He said it was regrettable that Parliament had rejected Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement on three occasions and that the country and businesses now faced months of further uncertainty.

He was asked if the Government had failed over Brexit and about the effect on local businesses and economy of the uncertainty. He said:”It was deeply disappointing our negotiated deal did not get a majority in the Commons. Parliament is gridlocked. I know how frustrating it must be.”

But he said the referendum vote must stand or risk people criticising British democracy. "I think we have to deliver on that instruction."

But he added that in his opinion, given the recent votes in Parliament, that a “no deal” scenario which few businesses wanted, was looking less likely.

He said: "Dawn made some excellent remarks when she talked about restoring confidence to our country and rising to new challenges and seizing new opportunities, I and I think the Government wholeheartedly agree."

He said the effect of Brexit on the economy was not easy to predict and may not be as bad as some expect.

"The underlying economy, beneath what is going on with Brexit, has performed a lot better than people would have anticipated two years ago. Despite Brexit half of small and medium manufacturers here in the North West are planning to increase their capital investment in the next year."

Host, former TV journalist, Rob McLoughlin asked him if the Government had failed over Brexit.

He replied that there was a huge division in Parliament but denied it was chaotic rather that Parliament was expressing the huge division in the county.

He was asked when he supported Britain coming out of the EU did he realise it was going to be so difficult.

He replied: "What I did not know was that we were going to have a General Election leaving a hung parliament."

He was then asked if he therefore blamed the Prime Minister. He said no it was just the nature of Parliament at the time.

Miranda Barker, chief executive of the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce said: "I am asking on behalf of one of our businesses which is a consummate exporter in aerospace and automotive and trades globally. When in India recently pitching to a client they were told, we know your product is better than the one from Norway and better value for money but it just looks a bit tricky dealing with the UK at the moment so we are gong to give the business to the other guy.

"Does Parliament realise that kicking the can down the road for the next six months is the worst possible option for British business?"

He replied that everyone knew it had to be resolved and that No Deal would offer more uncertainty but he thought that a compromise could be made and a deal would be agreed.

James Carney finance director of Blackpool Transport asked him that given the UK economy was relatively static, if Brexit might lead to a recession.

Mr Kwarteng answered: "Former governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King said that if you look over the past 200 years the way the economy grows is very often independent of whatever perceived crisis of the time. I think we have a very stable and strong and capable business leadership, the work you do yourselves locally means we have a robust platform to grow economically, regardless of what happens at Brexit this country can really thrive."