Chaos and Confusion or Order and Clarity? Where are SMEs now with Brexit Planning?

Brexit planning - which way?Brexit planning will continue to dominate the thinking and expenditure of the UK’s SMEs as Parliament is suspended for five weeks and the Government’s plans for leaving the EU on October 31 seem to be in tatters.

Parliament has forced the Prime Minister and cabinet to release its documents, called Operation Yellowhammer, on planning for a No Deal Brexit and has also blocked the possibility of the latter. Both are now, in theory, legal requirements as Acts of Parliament.  However, disagreement prevails.

It is questionable whether the government will obey the law, especially if they can find a way out. Furthermore, there is now no Parliament, or Parliamentary Committees, sitting to scrutinise the Government although the press and Courts are fully engaged.

Notwithstanding the political gymnastics, businesses are deluged with upbeat exhortations and alleged offers of help of which the following is a selection from the last six weeks or so.

Liz Truss, the then International Trade Secretary, described Brexit as a “golden opportunity” for UK businesses and Lord Wolfson, CEO of Next was reported in the Mail on Sunday as being no longer fearful of a no-deal Brexit now that Boris Johnson is Prime Minister. One wonders whether he is now preparing to eat his words.

Last week Alex Brazier, the executive director for financial stability, strategy and risk at the Bank of England, claimed the UK’s financial system will remain stable after Brexit.  Indeed, the BoE now claim a hard Brexit won’t be as disastrous as they previously claimed.

There have also been announcements of several offers of help to businesses with Brexit Planning.

The Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom has launched a £10m grant scheme for business organisations and trade associations to support businesses in preparing for Brexit ahead of October 31. The fund is open to business organisations and trade associations.

Barclays is to host a series of “Brexit clinics” in October and November, with the sessions designed to help its SME customers after Britain’s departure from the EU.

The Government also launched its own £100 million “Get Ready for Brexit” campaign designed, according to Michael Gove, to “give everyone from small business owners to hauliers and EU citizens, “the facts they need” to prepare for the UK’s departure from the EU on October 31st.”

Also, as I reported in July, the BCC (British Chambers of Commerce) launched its own Brexit planning  guidance.

Is all this Brexit planning help and guidance just “smoke and mirrors”?

There is some evidence from SMEs on the ground that their businesses are already feeling the effects of the long-running Brexit saga and that they still feel there is little clarity to help them with Brexit planning.

Last month a QCA (Quoted Companies Alliance) survey of UK small and mid-cap companies found that 59% said it had distracted them from running their business, 16% have invested less in the UK, 43% say that preparing for Brexit has had a negative impact on their company’s growth while just 24% felt the Government had provided adequate information although more than half had taken steps to prepare for the no-deal scenario as best they could.

The real effects on the ground are already being felt.

The value of central EU public procurement contracts secured by UK businesses fell by 30%, to €108m (£99m) in 2018, from €155m (£142m) in 2017, research by UHY Hacker Young.

The British Ports Association (BPA) has dismissed a £10m Brexit fund for English ports as “a tiny amount of money”.

The UK Food and Drink Industry has highlighted its worries about regulatory clearance required for selling animal products to the European Union, warning that there is a serious possibility that, come October, listed status will not be granted.

Towards the end of last month the Guardian described the impact it has already had on one UK company, a Bristol-based manufacturer of industrial safety valves. It reported that at one time its exports were growing fast, with 130 employees and eight apprentices training to high standards, but since the referendum things have quickly changed. According to the owner: “Some EU customers instantly decided it was too much trouble and switched to EU manufacturers – we lost 10% of the business.”

He reported that to continue to trade in the EU post Brexit he needs to obey rules of origin, recording every raw material, tracking every component, requiring “horrendous” new IT systems, his various valves containing 30,000 different configurations and “tripling our admin workload”.

Order and Clarity for Brexit planning? Not quite yet it seems.

So, my advice to SMEs who have to contend with this ongoing Chaos and Confusion remains as it was in July:

For the time being the sensible strategy may be to hold off on any major investment, to focus rigorously on management accounts and cashflow, and to ensure strategy and business plans are as flexible as possible to cover a range of eventualities. It might even be worth contacting a restructuring adviser as part of your contingency planning.

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