Brexit bartering behind closed doors: who gets a say in shaping the future of the UK?
What exactly have Nissan, UBS, and countless other corporations been told by the government, that would give them the confidence to make such bold public reassurances in times of such great uncertainty? What deals have been done, or promises made?
Concerns were raised over claims that Nissan was offered a ‘sweetheart deal’ to keep production in the UK post-Brexit, and the public is still none the wiser about what deal was done and whether taxpayers’ money was put on the bargaining table. Alarm bells are now ringing again after the Financial Times reported that UBS had received “regulatory and political clarifications” that makes it “more and more unlikely” the bank would not move jobs from London after Brexit - no matter what the scenario.
Now, it’s perfectly reasonable for the government to be engaging with business and civil society alike over the implications of Brexit on individual sectors, and it’s only right that organisations big and small have the chance to make their voices heard. It’s positive that government and business work together to make sure workers have job security post-Brexit.
But when the government makes such deals, they inevitably and unavoidably impact the public in some way. That could be a financial impact on the public purse if, for example, commitments to subsidies are made, or regulations changed to reduce standards or workers’ rights. But there are a range of other concessions and deals that can be offered by government to coax a business into taking a particular direction - like keeping jobs in London post-Brexit, as with UBS.
What we’re concerned about is that the public simply does not know whether - if any - promises have been made, and therefore has no recourse to holding the government to account. So here’s the sum total of what we do know about UBS’ contact with the government:
In May 2017, then junior minister at the Department for Exiting the EU Lord Bridges of Headley met with UBS. What was the subject of their discussion, according to publically available and mandatory ministerial diaries data? A "Discussion on Department for Exiting the European Union Policy on financial services".
That’s it. That's all we know.
A contemporary of David Cameron’s at Eton and then Oxford, prior to taking up his position as a junior minister in the Department for Exiting the EU Bridges was a lobbyist for Quiller Consultants. At Quiller, he personally handled the public affairs contract for the City of London Corporation. Bridges also held a post as a campaigns director for the Conservative Party headquarters.
In addition to having worked as a lobbyist, Bridges made sure to keep one foot firmly in the lobbying world while he was a minister through cosy relationships with think tanks - a well established lobbying loophole that Unlock Democracy has written much about. He was a Board Director of the free market think tank the Centre for Policy Studies up until 6 June 2017, with clear overlap during his tenure as a junior minister.
Bridges has also been doing the rounds at think tanks. In February he delivered the opening speech at a private dinner convened by Reform for their patrons, on the subject of achieving the best possible outcome from Brexit. Hosted under Chatham House Rules, all discussions during the private dinner for wealthy Reform patrons was strictly kept behind closed doors.
None of this is to suggest that a specific deal was done between UBS and Bridges in May. The problem is, the public simply doesn’t know. This culture of revolving doors between the public and private sector, lobbyists taking up front bench positions, and the government being unaccountable for cosy deals with business, gives rise to distrust in politics.
This specific instance raises a number of concerns. Firstly, because minsters are required to publish very little about the meetings they hold, ministerial meetings data tells us nothing meaningful about what policies were discussed or promises made. Such information isn’t captured by the UK’s lobbying register either. Ministers are compelled to be transparent about whether the organisations they are meeting with are seeking to influence government policy or positions. As a result, the public aren’t able to hold the government to account.
Secondly, this one example tells us a lot about who is being listened to in the Brexit process, and who is being given the opportunity to shape what the future of our country looks like; Bridges is a former lobbyist in the heart of the Department for Exiting the EU, and those getting the best deals from Brexit so far are multi-national corporations that have cash to splash in order to gain the ear of government officials.
Time and time again, the public has been promised that Brexit is about facing the future together. And yet both parliament and the public have been routinely cut of the process. The government needs to be more transparent about how policy decisions are being made, but more immediately, they must ensure that Brexit is inclusive and truly shaped by the many, rather than just the few that can afford to buy access and influence.