How Business for Britain helped change the course of history in three short years

How Business for Britain helped change the course of history in three short years

Coming back from a long trip to the US a few weeks ago, I have detected not only a change in the weather as we move into the Autumn, but also a distinct change in the political weather.

In the weeks after the referendum, there was a legitimate concern that the decision made by voters on 23rd June would not be honoured. Some people on the Remain side misinterpreted the result as merely advisory, not binding, and argued that it should be put to Parliament and thrown out in the Lords.

This approach included instructing top law firms like Mishcon de Reya to tie the whole process up in legal knots. Others demanded a second referendum, taking a leaf out of the EU playbook of what to do if electorates vote the “wrong” way.

Perhaps the most serious concern was that Brexit would mean a Norwegian-style deal with the EU, where Britain would remain a member of the Single Market, subject to the same rules over freedom of movement and with no say over the regulations and directives governing our country.

Three months on from the referendum, these concerns seem much less founded than they were immediately after the vote, and the actions of the Government all point to Brexit actually meaning Brexit. There is still a long way to go in this process, but this welcome change in the political weather does have a knock on implication for Business for Britain: having seen a need to carry on our mission, we have now concluded that our political energies are best focused elsewhere, including on projects such as BrexitCentral.

I founded Business for Britain in the Spring of 2013, shortly after David Cameron’s Bloomberg Speech, to bring together business leaders who supported a referendum and a fundamental change in our relationship with the EU. I had been struck by the backlash from existing business groups to the Prime Minister’s policy of renegotiation followed by a referendum, and I knew that they weren’t speaking on behalf of the business leaders who I had come to know from my previous campaigns. The business community was divided, but an organisation needed to be launched to represent those less supportive of the European project.

We launched with a double-page ad in City A.M. signed by 500 people, headed by our Co-Chairmen, Alan Halsall and John Mills, our Honorary Treasurer, Daniel Hodson, and top entrepreneurs like Peter Cruddas and Jon Moynihan. We soon grew the list to 1,000 signatories, which we published in another double-page ad, this time in the Telegraph, on the eve of the CBI’s annual Autumn conference.

The period running up to the 2015 General Election was focused on four things: building awareness of BfB in the media and Westminster though a series of research papers; publishing properly weighted polls of the business community to demonstrate that our support went beyond our 1,000 signatories; supporting the first two attempts to get parliamentary approval for the Referendum Bill; and providing intellectual support for our position through the publication of our magnum opus, Change, or Go.

The central objective of BfB was to demonstrate that the business community was divided on the EU and to combat the general assumption that all business leaders were fanatically pro-EU. A crucial element of this was the creation of our regional structure, which couldn’t have been done without Julie Moody, our Regional Director, Alan Halsall, who oversaw this for the Board, and Georgiana Bristol, who worked with me to build up the original list of signatories. Our strategy – based on an important piece of market research done for us by Dominic Cummings after the 2014 European Elections – was that if voters could see that local business people in their communities supported a Leave vote, this would counterbalance the slew of corporate suits who would sign up for the Remain campaign.

From June 2015, Julie and Alan set out across the UK visiting business people and entrepreneurs who shared BfB’s passion for achieving a global, free-trading future for the UK. These were people who would play a pivotal, but not widely known part of the referendum campaign.

By August, we had recruited BfB Chairmen for eight of the English regions, as well as Wales and Scotland. They came down to London for media training with Rob Oxley, and briefings from myself and Dom on our strategy for the referendum. Following the June European Council meeting, the BfB Board had agreed to form Vote Leave and our small office was buzzing with new recruits joining by the day. Little did we know then that it would all be over within ten months.

I think a key factor to the success of Vote Leave was the respect and trust we showed our volunteers and the fact that, contrary to what our critics said, we were not London or SW1-centric. Julie, Dom, Stephen Parkinson and Nick Varley all come from the North East. Alan and John Longworth come from Lancashire and I’m proud of my Yorkshire roots in Leeds.

During the Autumn, James Starkie recruited regional PR firms to handle our press and the BfB Regional Chairmen and signatories were their first port of call for all media requests. We knew that the most powerful voice was local business owners reassuring voters that leaving the EU would not hinder them nor their jobs locally. Voters listened to Ebac’s John Elliott in Aycliffe when he said the EU project was flawed, or to British Hovercraft’s Emma Pullen who saw first hand how the EU hampered her business.

Over Christmas, the campaign team worked hard on the regional launches which happened across the UK in the New Year. In the first two weeks of January, we launched in Durham, Leeds, Nottingham, Norwich, London and Portsmouth, attracting a considerable amount of media coverage.

Fast forward to March of this year, and the designation document to become the official Leave campaign was being prepared with a full submission from BfB highlighting the UK-wide support from business. By this point we had been joined by John Longworth, who sacrificed his position at the British Chambers of Commerce to be able to speak honestly in the referendum debate. Julie was also being ably helped by Steve Talbot, who became a crucial liaison with the newly formed City for Britain, which worked closely with Richard Patient, our London Chairman.

Speaker requests were coming in their hundreds and the BfB Regional Chairmen and Deputies were helping fill the slots. In the last four weeks of the referendum campaign, most of them were appearing in at least one debate every day, and sometimes two. All this on top of running their businesses. People were more keen to hear from local business leaders than MPs, and whilst many debates began with a majority for Remain, there was almost always a big swing to Leave, and often a Leave victory in the final vote.

The BfB regional structure also invaluable in providing places to take VIPs and the infamous Battle Bus. Watching Boris spin doughnuts with BfB signatory Lawrence Tomlinson in a Vote Leave-emblazoned Ginetta was one of the most memorable images of the campaign. Another was Boris grinding £350,000,000 on to a huge piece of metal at Reid Steel, which is managed by BfB signatory Simon Boyd. As with any campaign, often plans were changed at short notice, or sometimes even cancelled, but there was no grumbling, everyone understood there was a job to do. We also had a lot of fun along the way. And we won!

Think tanks and campaign groups have a tendency never to die, but rather to just fade away into irrelevance. Business for Britain has achieved too much since it was founded to suffer such an ignominious fate. Over three years, we provided the foundations for Vote Leave and provided a voice for business leaders in the referendum debate. That job is now done, leaving many happy memories and a bright future for the UK.