Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of Wales for Europe and author of Unfinished Business, Journal of an Embattled European.
Last week a story broke that in other times would have commanded the headlines of the national press for weeks because it speaks so loudly not only of a sickening blow to a Welsh community but also of the plight of British industry in general and manufacturing industry in particular.
Shamefully, within days it has been crowded out by an unedifying contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party, a contest which will gift the winner a bonus in the shape of the keys to 10 Downing Street.
I speak, of course, of the impending loss of 1,700 jobs at Ford’s Bridgend plant and what it means for both Bridgend and Wales, what it says about the current state of the British car industry, what it says about the absence of an industrial strategy that successive governments seem always to be about to create, what it says about the relative powers of governments and international corporations and, of course, what it tells us about Brexit’s radioactive threat to our economic well-being.
Ministers and Ford executives have been swift to assure us that the decision to close the Bridgend factory has nothing to do with Brexit. In true Trumpian fashion, this is in direct contravention of Ford’s previous warnings that Brexit would be ‘catastrophic’ for the British automotive industry. Apparently, today’s words, as a previous US president’s spokesman once said, can render yesterday’s ‘inoperative’.
But we do not have to rely on the words of Ford.
Only two months ago the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders was claiming that investment in ‘connected and autonomous vehicles’ could deliver a £62 billion annual economic opportunity for the UK by 2030, “if the Brexit roadblock is removed”. Claiming that the UK’s potential in this field put it in pole position, the SMMT’s chief executive, Mike Hawes, was unequivocal about the nature of the obstacle:
“Brexit has undermined our global reputation for political stability and it continues to devour valuable time and investment. We need the deadlock broken with ‘no deal’ categorically ruled out and a future relationship agreed that reflects the integrated nature of our industry and delivers frictionless trade.”
A week later he was warning against “yet another devastating ‘no deal’ precipice on 31 October.”
His organisation estimated that new investment had fallen by 80 per cent over the past three years. He could point to Honda’s impending closure of its Swindon plant with the loss of 3,500 jobs, Nissan’s cancellation of the production of new models at Sunderland and several others, not to mention the wider effects on suppliers and the families of affected employees.
Meanwhile, many contenders in the Tory leadership race vie with one another to espouse a variety of hard Brexits including reliance on WTO rules, quietly ignoring the fact that under those rules car makers could face an extra tariff of 10% on all car exports to the EU. The SMMT reckons that could amount to £5.7 billion, increasing the average price of a British car sold in the EU by 3,000 Euros per car.
But, says the UK’s Business Minister predictably, the Ford closure has nothing to do with Brexit.
Of course it is true that there are other disruptive factors at work – the ramifications of VW’s ‘dieselgate’ scandal, the accelerating switch to electric-powered vehicles, American protectionism, and the reduction in China’s growth rates – but it is precisely because of the precariousness of this period in the automotive industry that we need Brexit now like a hole in the head.
This is government by the Goon show. Secombe, facing Indian attack: “Draw the wagons into a circle.” Milligan: “But we don’t have enough to form a circle”. Secombe: “Then form a semi-circle”. (Message to millennials – ask your parents, or possibly grandparents?)
Presumably taking his cue from Messrs Secombe and Milligan, the leading candidate in the Tory leadership race, Boris Johnson, having campaigned for circumstances that will reduce good job opportunities in the car industry, proposes to reduce taxation for high earners while increasing National Insurance payments, and to pay for it by reneging on our legal and financial obligations to the EU.
This is a policy that, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, will primarily benefit wealthy pensioners and those living solely off investments, categories who pay no National Insurance. You will note that such people are heavily represented in the Conservative Party’s miniscule electorate. The cynicism of the plan is breathtaking. But then, Mr Johnson is a specialist in cynicism, though usually lightly disguised as buffoonery.
He is not entirely alone, the leadership race is turning out to be in part an auction of tax reductions, in a country where public services – not least our schools and hospitals – are screaming to be rescued from the thumbscrews of austerity.
Small wonder that even appalled Cabinet members are lining up to tell him that these are the wrong priorities. He will no doubt comfort himself with the knowledge that he has the support of political giants such as Chris Grayling and Andrew R T Davies.
They should re-read the words of the historian, Max Hastings, Boris Johnson’s editor when he worked at the Daily Telegraph. In 2012 Hastings wrote of Johnson’s preoccupation with “exaltation of self” and, in one of his milder comments, went on: “He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect, save as a superlative exhibitionist. He is bereft of judgment, loyalty and discretion. Only in the star-crazed, frivolous Britain of the 21st century could such a man have risen so high, and he is utterly unfit to go higher still.”
This was written when Johnson was Mayor of London, but his later period as foreign secretary seems to have born out Mr Hasting’s judgment in spades. I point those interested in reading in full this remarkable testimonial – that also deals with Hasting’s view of Johnson’s unrestrained libido – to the web.
In the meantime Dominic Raab is selling himself as the ‘Brexiter you can rely on’ – out by 31 October come hell or high water. That’s a bit like claiming to be the British economy’s most reliable suicide bomber. If Michael Gove has been sniffing cocaine, you wonder what Mr Raab must be on.
While contenders were setting out their stalls in Westminster, the Financial Times, with pointed timing, published an assessment of foreign direct investment trends across the EU. The Tory contenders would do well to read it.
This points out that in the three years to the first quarter of 2019, capital investment in the EU grew by 43 per cent compared with the previous three years. In the same period, the UK suffered a 30 per cent drop. The number of jobs created by foreign direct investment in the EU27 increased by 30 per cent, while the UK saw a 28 per cent drop.
This is the context for last week’s Ford announcement. It’s a pity that those wishing to be our next Prime Minister cannot address these facts in person before the threatened Bridgend workforce, rather than dreaming up ways of creating the perfect storm.