What was in Theresa May’s mind when she stood at the podium outside No.10 on the day of her “coronation” and intoned that fateful, and subsequently much lampooned, statement?
Is it possible that she was recalling a similar, plate-shifting event six years earlier when David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood side-by-side and said that they were going to make coalition government work? Was the new Prime Minister’s “strong and stable” mantra all about fronting up, echoing the bulldog spirit of Churchill and Thatcher? Or was her intention to soothe nerves, steady markets, keep calm and carry on?
We know now that May’s Rose Lawn moment proved to be an ephemeral one. Confidence in the message that Britain would prosper by striking out for the sunny uplands of shiny new international trade deals, unfettered by the Brussels bureaucrats, quickly evaporated. The economists’ instant predictions of doom were quickly superseded by those of their political counterparts amidst counter accusations about broken Brexiteer pledges. The PM’s dual gambit of triggering Article 50 and her subsequent election call, intended to strengthen her authority and negotiating hand with the EU, was savagely exposed by Labour’s skilful exploitation of the Conservatives’ record on austerity and the NHS.
What does all of this mean for ordinary people’s livelihoods, jobs and future prospects? No one knows because, as it transpires, no one understands what Brexit will mean in reality. The uneasy calm that has descended upon financial markets is a direct consequence of this institutional myopia. Everyone is anticipating a Lehman Brothers moment, when everything changes, dramatically and drastically. Whether the cause will be the Brexit negotiations themselves, a Trump-inflicted breakdown in US/UK trade relations or some other cataclysmic global event, no one can say.
In the meantime, in the words of Clifford Chance senior banking and finance partner Malcolm Sweeting, “we continue to hope for the best, but prepare our clients for the worst”. Speaking at a Times’ “The Brief” panel of five top City lawyers in July, Sweeting and his co-panellists were in no mood to predict what the outcome of the Brexit negotiations might look like; for example they were split 3 – 2 on the question of whether the triggering of Article 50 on 29th March is revocable in law, a matter which may yet be tested in the Court of Appeal and, ironically given Britain’s stance on EU institutions, the European Court of Justice.
However, the panellists were united in thinking that the starting gun has triggered a process which will ultimately descend into a collective frenzy caused by the immutable Article 50 deadline. For financial institutions with cross-border services to protect and complex agreements which will have to be re-drafted to reflect new realities, whatever these may prove to be, there is no time to reflect on possible scenarios; they have already taken decisions and started to move some of their operations to safer domains.
Whatever happens from here onwards we are in for unsettling times and employees of most businesses and organisations, whether or not they operate across borders, are right to be concerned for the immediate future. Anyone involved in manufacturing and service sector supply chains, in particular financial services and the professions, is potentially at risk now.
Employees should already be making their contingency plans for the eventuality that they may have to look elsewhere for a job or possibly review their entire career plans. In Malcolm Sweeting’s words, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
© David Levenson, July 2017
David Levenson is the founder and managing director of Coaching Futures. David coaches company executives who are coping with manifold challenges resulting from economic uncertainty, industrial transformation and technological disruption.
David specialises in working with current and former employees who are going through a career transition, often the result of a re-structure or other unplanned exit from their organisation.
For more information, visit www.coachingfutures.com