Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked business leaders to help him decide which regulations should be ripped up now that the UK has completed its divorce from the European Union.
The premier made the offer in a call on Wednesday afternoon with some 250 corporate leaders, according to four people with knowledge of the matter. He asked what red tape could be cut to make life easier for Britain’s companies to operate after Brexit.
Johnson also said Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will lead a drive to speed up the machinery of government, acknowledging the state can be too slow to make decisions, according to three of the people.
The revelations will do little to alleviate EU fears that Britain plans to deviate from its own regulatory approach and undercut the bloc’s competitiveness now that Brexit has been completed. The so-called level playing field of fair competition rules was one of the issues that prevented British and European negotiators from striking a trade deal until December 24, just a week before the UK was due to end its post-Brexit transition phase.
One participant on the call said Johnson used a painting analogy, saying the fresco was not yet dry after Brexit and that there was an opportunity for businesses to add to the picture by telling government their needs.
Mr Johnson was joined on the call by Mr Sunak, Business Secretary Alok Sharma and Trade Secretary Liz Truss. The discussion comes at a highly sensitive time for relations between businesses and ministers, with the UK plunged this week into its third national pandemic lockdown, as companies grapple with radical changes to trade terms with EU.
The premier told participants that he views February 15 as a key date by which time the government expects to have vaccinated the bulk of the UK’s most vulnerable people and can begin to lift restrictions.
On the call, Mr Sunak said that while companies and workers have struggled during the pandemic, there are five reasons for optimism. They are: consumers have been saving money and so are ready to spend when the pandemic is over; unemployment has not increased by as much as forecast; some businesses have been able to strengthen their balance sheets; the bounce-back over the summer months shows the UL economy can recover quickly; and the government has now secured a Brexit deal.
The chancellor also said the budget due in March will be much less focused on the pandemic, with more emphasis on boosting growth, infrastructure, skills and innovation.
Mr Johnson said he wanted to consign the word Brexit to the past because the process is over, and the country needs to move forward. The premier spoke about his levelling up agenda to spread economic opportunity into disadvantaged regions, and the UK’ environmental push to eliminate greenhouse gases by 2050.
Mr Sharma spoke positively about building up the electric car and battery industries. The business secretary also said the Brexit deal was better for services than it has been given credit for, citing freedoms for business travellers as well as for lawyers and accountants.
Ms Truss said that the next big trade priorities are a US trade deal and to strengthen links with Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership members.
Overall, participants described Mr Johnson’s tone as one of optimism, saying that he outlined a “Johnson’s Law” that while people are communicating a lot over video now, they want to get together physically and that will stimulate investment when it happens. He concluded his remarks with a joke about a company opening an underground trampoline centre in Wales, saying if that could succeed, the economy can bounce back.