LONDON — Crack on.
Brexit-scarred Londoners are weary and want nothing more than to move on, and while the mood here may not be fa-la-la-la-la joyous ahead of Thursday’s general election — the third poll in five years — many are hoping the result will bring closure, and allow businesses and individuals to move forward, and get things done.
Brexit hasn’t happened yet, but the political squabbling and repeated delays — two missed deadlines in seven months, and a new exit date set for Jan. 31 — have worn this city thin and split apart families and businesses, not to mention the main political parties.
“After the election, we’ll know what we’re up against, and things will get clearer. Until now, we’ve been shadow boxing, and we are much better when we have something to fight against,” said Jeremy King, who — with business partner Chris Corbin — has reshaped the city’s dining landscape with a string of grand café-style restaurants including The Wolseley, Brasserie Zédel and Colbert.
King said “mercifully” his restaurants — which serve up everything from a full English breakfast and prix fixe meals to oysters, Chateaubriand and Champagne — have been flourishing in an uneven market and his company is in expansion mode.
Earlier this year, Corbin & King opened Soutine in London’s St. John’s Wood, and is planning to revive the famed Soho seafood restaurant Manzi’s in 2020. The company also has a new Notting Hill venue in its sights, after having closed its Islington restaurant Bellanger in August.
King, who is forever making the rounds of the restaurant floors, said there is an underlying feeling of caution, uncertainty and brittleness in the air. “People are taking fewer risks right now, and I think what all industries need right now is some sort of resolution.”
Closure, if it happens at all, could come at a high price, as no one particularly likes the prime ministerial candidates. In one corner there is the incumbent Boris Johnson, whom many accuse of being untrustworthy — and an outright liar — and in the other is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. His alt-left, Seventies-style socialism, failure to stop rampant anti-Semitism from spreading through the party, and soft spot for extremists around the world has endeared him to few.
Some — including British newspaper The Economist — believe the only choice (albeit not a great one) as a result is the Liberal Democrats, led by Jo Swinson. While the party has little chance of winning, the hope of some is that the Lib Dems grab enough votes to force Johnson’s Conservatives to change tack on Brexit.
Given all the turmoil, London’s very rich have been running for the hills and mountains of Monte Carlo — and stashing their billions in safe havens — while banks, financial markets and businesses of all sizes are on tenterhooks. They’re praying that the “Corbyn-istas,” if they manage to win, don’t punish them with taxes — or dismantle their businesses altogether. Part of Labour’s grand plan is to re-nationalize key sectors of the economy, shut all the private schools and hand the property over to the state.
Others are fearful of a Boris-style Brexit, and wonder how long it will actually take Britain to prosper — if at all — once it leaves the European Union. London, which voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, has become a divided city not just because of Brexit, but because of the political hostility, and uncertainty, of the past three years.
The British press, meanwhile, is all over the map: “Keep Mr Corbyn out at all costs. So vote Conservative,” said the pro-business Sunday Times of London. Last week, the left-leaning New Statesman, a weekly political magazine, refused to endorse any of the parties ahead of the election.
The liberal magazine also branded Corbyn “unfit to be prime minister” due to the anti-Semitism scandal and to the Labour leader’s failure to take a clear stand on Brexit.
The left-wing Guardian, meanwhile, has expressed its disgust with the whole election scenario. “Against a decade-old Tory government led by a charlatan,” wrote the paper, referring to Johnson, “Labour should be confident of winning, not praying for a last-minute miracle.”
Whatever the result of the election, businesses want to carry on.
Last week, the U.K. Fashion & Textile Industry issued a detailed manifesto asking the incoming government to ensure minimal disruption to trade, increased support for exporters, entrepreneurs and businesses, Brexit or no Brexit. The manifesto also notes that the European Union is the largest market for U.K. fashion and textiles, accounting for 76 percent of exports.
Some would argue the turmoil around Brexit, and the election campaign, has damaged London — and the country — from more than just a business point of view.
“With Brexit, the U.K. has already taken a huge hit to its image as a cool and dynamic place. Brexit has made the country look retro,” said Anda Rowland, who owns and runs the bespoke tailor Anderson & Sheppard on Old Burlington Street, a few steps from Savile Row.
“A Labour government would add another hit to the country’s image — we’d then be looking very retro,” she said. Rowland was referring to Corbyn’s current thinking, and to the Labour party before Prime Minister Tony Blair and New Labour exploded onto the scene in the mid-Nineties, looking to marry capitalism with socialism and ushering in the era of “Cool Britannia.”
Rowland said her business, in particular, is sensitive to perceptions of the U.K. abroad.
“If you are selling clothes you need the ideal combination of being traditional and dynamic,” argued Rowland, whose company has dressed clients ranging from Fred Astaire and Duke Ellington to Bryan Ferry, Tom Ford and Calvin Klein.
Rowland also pointed to another major challenge that she and scores of other brands and retailers in London have been facing: Onerous business taxes, which are based on property value, rather than on turnover. They have spiraled out of control over the past few years, with landlords and local councils doing little to keep them in check, forcing some retailers to shutter.
Other Brexit-related problems persist. Patrick Grant, whose clothing and tailoring businesses include E. Tautz and Norton & Sons on Savile Row, said that investment has slowed, and the U.K. could be risking “years and years” of uncertainty depending whether — and how — it exits from the EU.
“People want closure, but what we could be getting is a great deal worse than what we have now,” he said.
Lynette Deutsch, founder and chief executive officer at Endaba Group, a business consultancy and executive search firm, said while the atmosphere here is not total doom and gloom, Brexit has scuppered a lot of businesses, and decision-making has been slow, especially among the larger firms.
“There is a lot of fear because of all the uncertainty, but in some cases people have been using Brexit as an excuse” not to make decisions, she said. In the meantime, Deutsch has pivoted, and now does nearly half of her business in the U.S., which works at a far faster speed.
Despite the anxious atmosphere — or maybe because of it — the high-end consumer industries are thriving, as are the arts.
“You can feel the mood of apprehension in the city ahead of the elections, but it is not being reflected in activities in the capital — or people’s behavior across our hotels,” said Paula Fitzherbert, director of communications for the hotels Claridge’s, The Connaught and The Berkeley.
She said December is traditionally one of the busiest months of the year, “and this one is no different. We have one of our highest levels of occupancy and average rates. The bars are also [pulling off] record results,” said Fitzherbert, adding that the Loubi Express, part of Christian Louboutin’s Christmas takeover of Claridge’s’ lobby, has created added bar space this season.
When Claridge’s unveiled Daniel Humm’s Davies and Brook restaurant on Dec. 9, Fitzherbert said the hotel received record calls, and tables sold out for nearly two months. There is more to come, with The Connaught Grill set to reopen in January.
It’s not just rich tourists splashing out: Fitzherbert said there is a “particularly high volume of Londoners” using the hotels, as well as guests from out of town.
Despite Brexit and the country’s political woes, 2019 was a year of record restaurant openings in London. Among the top-end ones were Amazónico; Lucky Cat by Gordon Ramsay, and The Betterment at the Biltmore Mayfair, whose chef is Jason Atherton, a former Ramsay protégé.
Celebrity magnet Julie’s in Holland Park reopened earlier this year in time for its 50th anniversary, and that’s likely drawn a sigh of relief from old-time customers including Kate Moss, who celebrated her 17th birthday party there.
Those Londoners who aren’t eating and drinking out all the time are binge-watching Netflix — or seeking catharsis in stage drama — in these unstable times.
The creativity is certainly flowing, with the floodlights trained on women, in particular.
It’s not just season three of “The Crown” (and the real-life royal drama: the Prince Andrew/Jeffrey Epstein scandal) that’s proving a distraction for the beleaguered Brits.
Women writers, actresses and artists are on fire, creating narratives with great humanity — and humor. Viewers are locked onto season two of “Motherland,” which is cowritten by Sharon Horgan and explores suburban family life and the British class system.
Those Brits are also soaking up old seasons of Horgan’s “Catastrophe,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” or the brilliantly idiotic interview series hosted by Philomena Cunk, played by the comedian Diane Morgan. Cunk’s deadpan questions to historians, professors and pundits include, “Why did Oliver twist?” and “What did people do, before evolution?”
“A Taste of Honey,” Shelagh Delaney’s multiple award-winning 1958 tale of a grim mother-daughter relationship is on at Trafalgar Studios, while “My Brilliant Friend” a five-hour, two-part adaptation of the Elena Ferrante books, is drawing big audiences at the National Theatre.
Women’s voices only get louder in Anne Glenconner’s gossipy — and poignant — memoirs entitled “Lady in Waiting” (Hodder & Stoughton). Anne and her husband, Colin Tennant (later Lord Glenconner), were the couple who transformed Mustique into a VIP party island, and she served as lady in waiting to Princess Margaret for nearly 30 years.
In London, the commercial property sector is bubbling, in the West End in particular, with New Bond Street now the most expensive shopping thoroughfare in Europe, and the third priciest in the world after Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and Causeway Bay in Hong Kong.
Versace and Celine women’s wear are both set to move onto New Bond Street next year, part of a 2.9 billion pound windfall — from private, public and international investors — that Oxford Circus and its surrounding neighborhood will see by 2022.
“There is lots of positive sentiment, demand is healthy and the pound is rallying: There are a couple of big deals we are working on at the moment, but everything is on hold until the general election,” said Matt Farrell, managing director of Trophaeum Asset Management, which has developed Albemarle Street, and owns large swathes of commercial property in Mayfair.
Trophaeum has been looking to fill retail space at 20 Dover Street, he said, with 30 viewings resulting in five offers.
Farrell said if the Conservatives win a parliamentary majority on Thursday, Johnson will have the mandate to execute Brexit, the mandate that eluded former Prime Minister Theresa May, who ultimately failed to push her deals through Parliament and who resigned at PM earlier this year.
With Johnson gaining ground in the polls, and investors betting on a comfortable Tory majority, the pound has begun to recover. On Monday, it closed at $1.32, and hit a 31-month high against the euro, after polls showing the Tory Party surging ahead of Labour three days before the election. On Monday, the pound was worth 1.19 euros.
Farrell of Trophaeum said there is a lot of pent-up demand in London right now, and the city will remain a place where investors want to do business. “People love the fundamentals here — the legal and financial system, the ease of doing business, the language,” he said.
Many business owners and entrepreneurs would second that sentiment.
“Earlier this year, people were generally fearful of the future, and there was more anxiety, but the mood is far more buoyant now,” said bespoke tailor Kathryn Sargent, who said she saw healthy sales for November and December. “I think Londoners are a bit fed up, and just want to get on with it. London is a unique place and the city will be buoyant no matter what the outcome.”
Sargent added that she hasn’t had any pushback — so far — from a new set of U.S. tariffs on products from the U.K., including men’s wool suits.
The 25 percent tariffs are in addition to what U.S. customers already pay for certain goods imported from Europe and they are the result of a World Trade Organization ruling that stems from a long-running dispute between the U.S. and the EU over subsidies to the aviation industry.
Amy Christiansen Si-Ahmed, founder of Sana Jardin, the London-based fragrance house that is helping female flower harvesters in Morocco to build businesses out of waste from the perfume-making process, said she remains positive about doing business in the U.K., “which still fosters a culture of entrepreneurship.”
Christiansen Si-Ahmed said there were many compelling reasons to stay in London — including the language and the education system — whatever the outcome of the general election.
Christopher Zanardi-Landi, ceo of the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned Pink Shirtmaker, grew up in England, and can definitely handle doing business here.
“I’ve lived in seven different countries, and they all have their pluses and minuses. The U.K. is, fundamentally, a really good place to operate. At their core, the British are rather pragmatic people, and things work here. It’s also much more accepting and far more multicultural than other European countries. This country is capable of just about anything — and it will pull itself together,” he said.