Britain is open for business, insisted Greg Clark. The only fly in the ointment was that it was principally open for overseas companies flogging their UK assets to other overseas companies. But the business secretary is by nature an optimist and was determined to cast General Motors’ sale of Vauxhall to Peugeot in a positive light.
The devaluation of the pound against the dollar as a result of the Brexit vote was just a total coincidence and the US-firm General Motors had been absolutely delighted by the windfall losses on its UK assets; this was a deal that showed Britain was in rude health.
The shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, has been widely touted as a future Labour leader and Jeremy Corbyn was in the house to witness her latest audition for the top job. It wasn’t entirely clear if he was willing her to do well or fluff her lines; incumbents often have mixed feelings. For the most part he looked a bit distracted after being up half the night going through his tax returns. To his surprise, they had turned out to be entirely accurate.
“Can the minister say whether the 40,000 jobs will be guaranteed beyond the existing contracts?” she asked in an urgent question, her tone measured and efficient. And could he also tell the house what other corporate takeovers might be on the cards and whether the government had offered Peugeot any other post-Brexit assurances as it had to Nissan?
Clark tried to match Long-Bailey’s calmness but only succeeded in appearing evasive. Either he doesn’t really know very much about the Peugeot deal or he doesn’t have a lot of say over its terms and conditions. “I’ve spoken to Peugeot today,” he said triumphantly.
Or, to be more accurate, Peugeot had spoken to him. And what they had told him was that the production of the current models were more or less guaranteed – subject to the usual provisos of Peugeot unilaterally changing its mind and closing one of the plants – until 2021. But that was absolutely fine because it was after the next election so there was nothing to worry about till the next parliament. And with any luck he’d be in a different job by the time any shit hit the fan.
The business secretary was less willing to say what assurances he might have given Peugeot as, for one thing, Brexit is officially going to be a massive success so there would be no need to give any, and for another he would have to kill anyone he told what deal Nissan had been offered. The Conservative MP Amanda Milling tried to help him out by observing that whatever assurances had been offered were part of the government’s successful industrial strategy.
“Yes, that’s it,” said Clark, grasping at straws. “It’s all to do with our successful industrial strategy.” At which point, things began to unravel rather as the government’s industrial strategy is something that is often talked about but doesn’t actually exist. Several MPs pressed him on business rates. As they went up if companies invested in new plant and machinery, what was the incentive for Peugeot to keep Vauxhall competitive in a global market? Clark shrugged. He didn’t know.
Labour’s Angela Eagle was also less than convinced by Clark’s insistence that Brexit would be boom times for Vauxhall. “Leaving the EU, the customs union and the single market puts us at a disadvantage,” she said, “and our employment laws will make it easier for Peugeot to sack British workers rather than French or German.”
“Nonsense,” replied Clark. Though he couldn’t explain why this was nonsense. It just was. Or must be. Call it brain fade.
“Peugeot’s reassurances aren’t worth the paper they are written on, are they?” said Labour’s Geoffrey Robinson.
Clark looked crestfallen. If he had been reassured by them, why couldn’t everyone else be. Was there something he was missing? Best not to go there. “Stop talking about negatives,” he pleaded. “I want to talk about opportunities.” Opportunities for Vauxhall to become the leading manufacturer of electric cars on the planet. Opportunities for him to be the best parliamentarian of his generation. Opportunities for pigs to fly.