Tony Burke: Brexit shambles now doing real damage to car industry

UK automakers are becoming increasingly exasperated with the government’s apparent inability to avoid a calamitous Brexit. Toyota is the latest car manufacturer to warn that a failure to secure tariff-free access to the European market could result in a rethink about the future of its Burnaston plant.

Toyota hinted earlier this month that its commitment to building the next version of its Auris model was dependent on the government securing a transitional Brexit deal, prompting Unite to warn that unless the cabinet focuses on delivering the transition period, rather than squabbling among themselves, there was a very real danger that investment in the UK would simply “melt away”.

Toyota’s executive vice-president Didier Leroy said ministers had to lift the “fog” around the Brexit negotiations and warned that the uncertainty and lack of clarity over what happens when the UK exits the EU could prompt the firm to reconsider its plans.

He confirmed that because Burnaston exports 8Toyota Burnaston0 to 85 per cent of its production to continental Europe, the imposition of import or trade taxes if Britain crashes out without a deal would create “a big negative impact in terms of competitiveness” for the plant.

Leroy’s comments came as industry analysts JATO revealed that Brexit uncertainty was hitting car sales in the UK and dragging down performance across Europe.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has also released figures showing that UK car manufacturing fell for a fifth consecutive month – by 14.2 per cent – in September, with its chief executive Mike Hawes saying that leaving the EU with no deal would be “the worst outcome for our sector” and urging the government to deliver on its commitments and “safeguard the competitiveness of the industry”.

Its not a collapse in sales, but a decline that is being driven by a number of factors, not least the future of diesel vehicles. But the fact that people are not spending money on new cars is indicative of their concerns amid such economic uncertainty.

Unite speaks regularly to car manufacturers and the SMMT and they all say the same – the Brexit shambles is doing real damage to the market.

There is a constant drip of companies advising Unite shop stewards and convenors that they can’t make investment decisions.

Business nerves are on edge, and nowhere more so than in the autos sector.

As our members at Toyota and Rolls Royce, who lobbied parliament for certainty over the Brexit process, know all too well, workers are increasingly concerned about the impact on their jobs.

The uncertainty at the heart of government is creating widespread insecurity and confusion within both management and the workforce.

A recent meeting between automakers and hard Brexit MPs was described to me as being “awful”. Industry representatives left with the impression that the no-deal zealots think that just because they say all will be well, it will be.

They brush aside the effects on manufacturing and its supply chains of a cliff-edge Brexit, seemingly committed to turning our country into an offshore tax haven based on the service sector.

As if manufacturing jobs are just collateral damage in their determination to complete Thatcher’s experiment.

Our members are not bargaining chips and their livelihoods are not collateral damage. Whatever some ministers may believe, it is their duty to protect jobs.

They cannot blame a cautious industry, or Brussels, when investment goes elsewhere.

But if it does, our members will certainly know who to blame – this chaotic, divided government and a prime minister incapable of standing up to and calling out those in her party who put their ideals above the interests of working people.

Tony Burke is Unite assistant general secretary for manufacturing.