LONDON — It’s springtime in Britain, and the question marks — and arguments — around Brexit are blooming as thick and fast as the wildflowers in London’s royal parks.
In a shock move following the long Easter weekend, Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday called for an early election in order to silence her detractors and win a clear mandate from the people as the British government prepares to enter negotiations to exit the European Union.
“I am not prepared to let the Brexit opposition weaken the U.K,” said May, who was wearing a sober wool pinstripe dress by the designer Daniel Blake. She said that unless there was a snap election “political game playing will continue” and the divisions in Westminster will cause further uncertainty.
Coincidentally, British Fashion Council chief executive officer Caroline Rush was also in Westminster on Tuesday, arguing about Brexit before a parliamentary committee, on behalf of the fashion industry.
Rush spoke to the Culture, Media and Sport committee at the House of Commons. The hearing is part of an inquiry launched last September to look into the impact of Brexit on cultural industries, tourism and the digital single market.
Rush testified alongside Ozwald Boateng and U.K. Fashion and Textile Association chief executive officer Adam Mansell. The three talked about topics ranging from manufacturing and exports to patent rights, immigration, and the impact of the weaker pound.
Rush said “as an industry, we remain optimistic when we can,” — but it’s not been easy.
“What we are hearing from our counterparts in other European cities is the rhetoric: ‘London is closing; its position is lessening; the financial power is going; the access is limited; it’s really important that in the next two years that we push this message that [Britain] is open and international,” Rush said, adding that other European capitals were actively trying to attract talent from Britain.
She said the prospect of Britain leaving the EU was already creating problems with visas. She said if workers are offered employment in the EU, they are more likely to take it. “They know there is stability there. We’re going to lose talent unless we give security to businesses what the plan will be moving forward.”
Manufacturing is another issue. Rush said many industries in the U.K. rely on EU workers as part of their workforce, and that local U.K. manufacturers were having a tough time hiring local workers.
“They can’t find people to fill trainee shifts, let alone to do skilled work, which is why they have to bring in skilled workers from the EU.” She said the current educational system in Britain has been moving away from skill development yet “we are being asked to fill those skills gaps locally.”
Proper training could not be conjured overnight. “It’s a long-term plan and a long-term strategy, and we’re encouraging these skills to be taught within schools,” Rush said.
Mansell also talked about the lack of local skilled workers. “There are 13,000 employees making high-end fashion products in London,” said Mansell. “But 70 percent of the people on the machines are from EU countries. There’s a real concern that we are going to lose that level of talent. We need the government to change the way we bring in those talented seamstresses and cutters.”
Mansell argued that a lot of those garment workers are not going to meet the 35,000 pound, or $44,000, annual salary requirement to secure permanent residency in the U.K. “A lot of the designers come from the EU and we don’t want to be in a position where they don’t want to set up businesses in the U.K.”
Mansell also addressed Brexit’s impact on the British high street. He said that while 94 percent of high street merchandise is imported, 70 percent comes from non-EU sources. “If you take a country like Bangladesh — our second-largest supplier of clothing in the U.K. — the tariff rates on goods coming from the country will go up 25 percent,” Mansell said.
“On top of that, there’s the exchange rate. We could be talking 45 percent more expensive of stuff coming into the U.K. Those figures apply whether you are talking about Bangladesh or Turkey, unless we get similar trade deals that we have with the EU.”
Boateng said the devalued pound is driving up the price of his clothing, which is manufactured in Italy. “I’m really disappointed. We were in such a great position prior to Brexit. Now I don’t know what the steps are — it’s a whole rethink on strategy of how we will move forward. Now, for sure, I have to look internationally. I have to look outwardly. For a long time there hasn’t been enough investment in manufacturing in the U.K.”
Following May’s snap election announcement Tuesday morning, the pound actually gained some ground, rising to $1.259 compared with $1.255 earlier in the day. Analysts believe it could nose up to $1.30 depending on the result of the elections, which are set for June 8.
Boateng, like many, believes it will be difficult to bring manufacturing back home: “For a lot of companies, (returning to the U.K. to produce) will be a very expensive exercise. Roll that with the increase of the business rates that we have. Someone said it’s like the perfect storm. As a creative person, I’m an optimist, but that’s tough.”
Those dramas — and others — are behind May’s decision to call a snap vote, a decision she said she took “recently and reluctantly.”
May has been coming under increasing fire from opposition parties such as Labour, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats, who are fighting her views on Britain’s future in the single market, the customs union and freedom of movement. She is also coming under pressure from the hardline right wing of the Conservative party.
She believes Britain is better off out of the EU altogether while many members of the opposition are plumping for a “soft Brexit” that would see the country remain part of the single market and the customs union and allow freedom of movement. British media immediately referred to the proposed election a “second” Brexit referendum.
If members of Parliament vote to hold early elections, in a poll set for Wednesday, it will be the second national election in two years. The next elections were set to take place in 2020.