At the end of a week that saw two days of cabinet meetings intended to define what shape the UK wanted for its future trading relationship with the EU27 that produced no firm decision, the PM met a delegation of Japanese businessmen and the Japanese ambassador in Downing Street. It is a statement of the blindingly obvious, therefore, that the PM was unable to clearly articulate what the UK’s position would be post Brexit. Despite Mrs May’s rhetoric, the “deep and special” relationship with the EU that affords full access to the Single Market and the benefits of being in the Customs Union whilst, erm, not being, is never going to fly. It must be placed in the lexicon with other meaningless phrases such as “Brexit means Brexit” as merely a place holder in the discussion.
The inscrutable Japanese were unlikely to be impressed. The group included representatives from Panasonic and car makers such as Nissan, Honda, Toyota and Mitsubishi. The enormity of Brexit is plainly not lost on Mrs May: "I recognise that the UK's forthcoming exit from the European Union is no small undertaking, but importantly it does present the opportunity to strike free trade deals around the world and build on our already very strong relationship that we have with Japan. As we look to the relationship between the UK and Japan we see already year-on-year trade between our two countries continues to increase, with Japans' investment in the UK reaching £46.5 billion in 2016."
It will not have been lost on the Japanese delegation that the EU and Japan are in the process of signing a free trade agreement, so it is unlikely that the UK as a stand-alone nation will be able to grant Japan much more than it can as an EU state.
May also pointed out that UK growth figures had been revised higher on the back of global trade, but since the upwards revision is more modest than similar actions in the rest of the G7 and EU, again this is hardly impressive, but merely “talking up” the economy.
Speaking after the meeting, the Japanese ambassador, Koji Tsuroka, commented: "If there is no profitability of continuing operations in the UK - not Japanese only - no private company can continue operations. So it is as simple as that."
In response to a question about the potential impact of the loss of frictionless trading after Brexit, he remarked: "This is all high stakes that all of us, I think, need to keep in mind,"
It is surely astounding to all business people that the UK cabinet could have triggered Article 50 in March 2017 and still not have come to an agreement on its realistic trading goals with the EU ten months later. A management team that allowed such a situation to happen in a business setting would have found itself facing summary dismissal long since.