When the Prime Minister – then in his former post as Foreign Secretary – was asked last June by a foreign ambassador to respond to the fears of British business leaders at the prospect of a disorderly Brexit, Johnson delivered his most notorious and quintessential line: “Fuck business.”
The quote sums Johnson up because while it appears disorderly and spontaneous, there can be little doubt that delivering such an aphorism in the company of EU diplomats was a calculated piece of theatre. There are millions of voters in towns across the UK who resent the stateless banks, technology companies and other multinationals that have remade the economy without giving them a second thought; Johnson was well aware that it was to these people that he spoke.
However, it is also typical of Boris Johnson that while he speaks to the small businesses and sole traders who have been disadvantaged and left behind by globalisation, it is his audience who will be shafted by his actions. A hard Brexit is now inevitable and a no-deal Brexit is highly likely, and in either situation, as the Confederation of British Industry announced last week (see News, p4), it is Britain’s more than five million SMEs that will suffer most.
For the international giants, the footholds they already have in other countries offer a well-stocked lifeboat. But Britain’s domestic SMEs lack the cash reserves and facilities for stockpiling, and their supply chains are weaker; some supermarkets have already signalled that they will not sell their stock in bulk to struggling SMEs such as smaller shops or restaurants. If, as many predict, leaving the EU without a deal precipitates a recession, it is likely that banks will repeat the strategy they followed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and small businesses will find themselves unable to secure finance. They will lack the skills provided by freedom of movement and the neighbouring markets on which they rely for growth.
During the Napoleonic Wars, French orators referred to England as a “nation of shopkeepers”; the British were quick to claim the term as an indicator of our commercial expertise. But now it is France in which the high streets flourish, while Britain’s small businesses prepare themselves to weather the coming storm.