You are going into hospital for a difficult operation. The surgeon introduces themselves and shakes your hand. You’re nervous, but know you are in the hands of a professional who has done this procedure a number of times.
You walk into the operating theatre and take a seat on a hospital bed. The surgeon flicks a switch, and the bed suddenly clamps shut, folding you up with it. He pulls the bed back down and apologises profusely. He starts to put his gloves on, and awkwardly fumbles them, clearly finding it difficult to do so, flapping his hands around.
Finally, the nurse comes in and says: “Doctor, you have your scrubs on the wrong way.”
Appearances are absolutely critical, and it is not simply enough to tell someone that you know what you are doing – you need to show them you actually know can do it too. That’s what the government appears to be getting wrong with their Brexit negotiations.
The resignation of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s Ambassador to the EU, is only the latest in a string of set backs for the government in its Brexit negotiations. Sir Ivan is by all accounts an expert negotiator who understands the complex cultural nuances of all the other countries in the EU, and knows what it takes to secure an agreement. It is surely a great loss.
In his resignation letter he wrote that “multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall”, and that the government still hadn’t properly resolved the structure of the negotiation team, let alone its negotiation strategy. In another part of the letter he criticised “muddled thinking” in the government.
On the surface, the government has given us every impression that it has no idea what it is doing, and that it doesn’t seem to be taking any steps to correct that perception it has built up. Take a look at the Department for Exiting for European Union’s own website. It contains no policies, strategies, or priorities. It is little more than a collection of pictures of ministers meeting with businesspeople and shaking their hands.
The government then is much-like the surgeon of our story. They are preparing for a very important and serious procedure – our legally difficult surgical extraction from the EU – which will have ramifications for generations to come, and yet they don’t even appear to have put on their clothes the right way around, let alone sharpened the scalpel.
All the while Prime Minister Theresa May tries to fill us all with confidence by saying that she knows what she is doing, and echoing platitudes like “Brexit means Brexit, and it will be red, white, and blue!”
But as a businessman, I know this perception problem is starting to seep into investment decisions. The government has experienced a honeymoon period so far – industry gave the government the benefit of the doubt to begin with. But it is hard to continue to keep up that illusion. In fact, things appear to be getting worse, and the process and uncertainly just seems to be dragging on and on.
So, unless the Government wants to start losing business and public confidence in a big way, it is time for them to practice what they preach.
Industry and the general public need to see firm action to feel reassured that the country is in good hands. That might mean the government laying out its principles of negotiation; that might mean making more high-profile well-publicised political appointments; that might mean just letting the country know what the plan is. Clearly, we don’t need to know everything, but we need to know something.
Some people say I should cut the government a little more slack. That these are just teething troubles, and that “it’ll be alright on the night”. As someone who has spent his life in music and the media, that is something I should know better than anyone else. It refers to a situation when everything seems to go wrong in the rehearsals, or during the sound check. It could be the sound on the PA system; the keyboard is out of tune; the running order doesn’t work; the lead actor forgets his lines; or the set collapses.
But, “never mind”, we say, “it’ll be alright on the night”. And usually it is. When the audience is in the building full of expectations, the group delivers a fabulous show. They bring the house down, leave the stage to multitudes of encores, and the audience goes home ecstatic.
“It’ll be alright on the night,” is what Theresa May keeps telling us about Brexit.
Except the government is not a group who has performed the show many times before. This is a new inexperienced set of government ministers setting out to reshape the next decades of our history. They have no script or running order; they have a cast of characters who are more likely to be disruptive rather than helpful; and the production manager – in this case, Sir Ivan – has quit before the show opens, because he doesn’t have confidence that the musicians know their notes.
It’s time for the government to show us that it knows what it’s doing – otherwise, both industry and citizens will lose faith. And if that’s the case, another General Election is needed.
Chris Wright is founder of Chrysalis Records, and former Chairman of Queens Park Rangers FC and Wasps RFC.