The Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, has clashed with senior business leaders after he attacked struggling companies for blaming Brexit on their woes.
Business organisations hit back after Raab told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Brexit was becoming a scapegoat for underperforming firms.
He said: “It’s probably rather easy at this moment in time for any business which isn’t doing rather well to point to Brexit.
“I don’t doubt that some of the uncertainty around these negotiations will have an impact on business – that’s why we are putting all our energy into getting the good deal we want with our EU friends and partners.
“All I’m gently saying it’s rather easy for a business to blame Brexit and the politicians rather than taking responsibility for their own situation.”
The Institute of Directors, which represents executives and senior board members across the country, said firms were “well within their rights to raise concerns [about Brexit], and these should not be dismissed out of hand”.
The Conservatives are traditionally viewed as the party of business, yet relations have deteriorated over the party’s handling of Brexit as company bosses grow increasingly concerned over the risk of no deal.
The CBI director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, tweeted after Raab’s comments that firms had shown remarkable resilience amid the uncertainty of Brexit. “[It’s] important politicians on all sides recognise this and show confidence in UK business. The world is watching,” she said.
Growth up, employment up – firms remarkably resilient amid great uncertainty. Important politicians on all sides recognise this and show confidence in UK business. The world is watching. #Brexit
— Carolyn Fairbairn (@cbicarolyn) September 13, 2018
Raab noted that official figures this week showed economic growth accelerating, while wage growth has also picked up and is now ahead of inflation.
The Brexit secretary also took a swipe at companies that have blamed the fall in sterling for pushing up prices. “Actually, inflation has come down to 2.5%, some people said it would hit 4%.,” he said.
His comments came after the John Lewis Partnership saw its profits all but wiped out in the past six months. The group, which also owns the Waitrose grocery chain, said: “With the level of uncertainty facing consumers and the economy, in part due to ongoing Brexit negotiations, forecasting is particularly difficult but we continue to expect full year profits to be substantially lower than last year for the partnership as a whole.”
The department store group’s chairman, Sir Charlie Mayfield, blamed heavy discounting by rivals that forced John Lewis to follow suit due to its “never knowingly undersold” promise. He said costs had surged due to the weak pound, which is still 13% below its pre-referendum levels.
Responding to Raab’s comments, Mayfield said: “I didn’t actually say that Brexit is to blame for our results. But the fact is that sterling is weaker and one of the factors in that is uncertainty.”
Since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, a number of companies have blamed poor performance on the uncertainty created by the vote, along with the weaker pound for raising their costs, amid growing fears that the UK could crash out of the EU without a deal.
However, the Morrisons chief executive, David Potts, insisted the supermarket group had not seen any change in consumer behaviour, when asked if Brexit was affecting sales. He said: “Consumers are a little bit more concerned about the country’s macroeconomic position rather than feeling the pinch in their own circumstances in which they feel fairly confident.”