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Brexit means breakfast

Held on 24 July, our breakfast briefing on Brexit served as a reminder of the deep divisions the issue has created in the UK and its government.

31 July 2019 / Macro & Markets

As London sizzled in record-breaking heat and Boris Johnson prepared to travel to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen for his own coronation as Prime Minister, 65 guests gathered in the boardroom at our Mayfair HQ for a briefing on the issue that has consumed – and, some would say, paralysed – the nation for the past three years.

The event began with breakfast on the terrace, followed by a welcome address from our Head of Investment Management, Simon Black.

“From Dolfin’s perspective, as we deal with clients from all over the world, the number one question they ask us is, ‘What about Brexit?’” Black told delegates. “Many are sceptical of Johnson’s ability to deliver; others are bewildered by the complexity of it all; most don’t understand the Irish border issue. For our investor visa clients, we have put together a portfolio of UK equities that includes very good, global businesses – but whether it is Brexit-proof remains to be seen. Our clients want certainty – not of returns, but of the environment in which they are investing. We’re told that Brexit means Brexit – but does it really?”

Black then introduced Roger Sanders OBE, a member of our recently appointed advisory panel and Chair of the discussion, who articulated the confusion that many in the audience no doubt share.

Trick or treat?

“People overseas are scratching their heads,” Sanders said. “People are incredulous. They see dire warnings about export market percentages, the Irish border, a recession that an OBR statement predicts in the event of a no-deal exit, and they ask themselves, come 31 October, what will it be – trick or treat?”

Sanders introduced the panellists: the Conservative MP David Jones and the Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake. Graham Stringer MP had been due to represent the Labour Party, but was unfortunately unable to attend on the day. Jones and Brake began by setting out their parties’ opposing positions on the issue.

“Today is a beautiful day,” the jubilant Jones began. “Not only because of the weather, but because we have a new Tory leader and Prime Minister. So this event could not have been better timed. The issue of Brexit has dominated two parliaments and proved the undoing of our last Prime Minister. Could it be the making of the next?”

“It’s going to be a thrill-packed summer.” – David Jones MP

He went on to emphasise his party’s determination to leave the EU in 100 days’ time, before outlining the issues with the current Withdrawal Agreement, explaining the challenges presented by the Irish border backstop and setting out his belief that Article 24 of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade could hold a solution.

“One thing is certain,” he concluded. “Something is going to have to give. It’s going to be an exciting, thrill-packed summer.”

Deep divisions

Brake then took the stage, beginning by explaining that his party’s passionate belief in the need to remain within the EU is as deeply held as the Conservative determination to leave.

“As a nation, we are more polarised on this issue than ever,” he said. “Positions have become entrenched, as we saw in the recent EU elections, in which both the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats did well. The public is falling into these two camps. Generations are slit, with children angry with their parents and the poor angry with the wealthy. I don’t believe that Johnson’s do-or-die position will be taken seriously by the EU. All 27 member states must reach agreement – that is why they have been so consistent so far.”

Sanders then set out some of the challenges faced by the financial services, businesses and manufacturing sectors, before asking the panellists one of the most vexed questions around Brexit: is remaining in the EU still an option?

“There are two routes to remaining,” Brake said. “Revoking Article 50, or a second referendum. Revoke looks unlikely now, but it could end up being the only option if MPs refuse to accept no-deal or the prorogation of parliament. A general election leaves the Conservatives highly vulnerable. However, a withdrawal agreement linked to a second referendum could get through parliament.”

“A withdrawal agreement linked to a second referendum could get through parliament.” – Tom Brake MP

“A second referendum would be catastrophic for our democracy,” countered Jones. “It was made clear to the public that if the vote was to leave, we would leave. Article 50 clearly sets out the terms of our departure.”

So, asked Sanders, should financial services firms be factoring an early general election into their planning?

“A general election is likely,” Jones said, “but not before 31 October. That would be fatal for our party. We saw in the EU elections that people deserted us for the Brexit party – it’s breathing down our necks. The most likely scenario is we get Brexit out of the way and Boris takes some time to build a rapport with the British people, and then we will be in a good position to win. Spring 2020 is a likely date.”

However, Brake was unconvinced by that argument. “We’re planning for one to be held in October,” he said.

After further discussions around the Irish backstop and the future of the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and questions from the floor, the panellists and audience left to go their separate ways.

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