David Davis is to face business leaders at his country retreat on Friday amid growing pressure to delay Britain’s departure from the single market.
Chief executives from Britain’s biggest firms have been invited to meet the Brexit secretary at Chevening, the grace and favour residence he shares with other cabinet ministers, where they are expected to call for him to put off the departure.
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The guest list for the informal summit is understood to include Carolyn McCall of Easyjet, who backed the Remain campaign and is already establishing a new base for the business in Europe; Tesco boss Dave Lewis; and Gavin Patterson, chief executive of BT.
The meeting will pile more pressure onto Mr Davis after a high-profile intervention from the CBI, whose director general Carolyn Fairbairn last night called for ministers to make an open-ended transitional deal with the EU to protect businesses.
This would mean Britain staying in the single market and customs union potentially for several years beyond March 2019 while the terms of such a deal with the other 27 countries are finalised.
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Brexit-sceptic business leaders feel emboldened by the election result – and support from Chancellor Philip Hammond to avoid a “cliff edge” – to be more forthright in calling for a soft Brexit.
The summit, expected to be a frank exchange of views, comes amid criticism of Theresa May’s government for failing to engage with business since she became Prime Minister.
Representatives from the CBI and manufacturers’ organisation EEF will also be at Chevening.
Xavier Rolet, chief executive of the London Stock Exchange – who is fighting to keep London as the hub for euro clearing – is also reported to be attending.
Alison Brittain, who runs Costa Coffee and Whitbread, the owner of Premier Inn hotels, will also be in attendance, with future migration from the EU likely to be on her agenda.
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David Cameron used to meet with a panel of business leaders at Downing Street regularly, but this was disbanded by Mrs May.
Following criticism, Mr Davis has now set up an EU Exit Business Advisory Group, which is due to meet once a fortnight with the Chancellor and Business Secretary.
In a speech at the London School of Economics yesterday, Ms Fairbairn made the most outspoken intervention yet by the business group, saying that reaching a final deal before March 2019 would be “impossible” and calling for a transition period. Britain would be unable to strike trade deals outside the EU during this period.
She said: “Even with the greatest possible goodwill on both sides, it’s impossible to imagine the detail will be clear by the end of March 2019. This is a time to be realistic.
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“Our proposal is for the UK to seek to stay in the single market and a customs union until a final deal is in force.
“The prospect of multiple cliff edges – in tariffs, red tape and regulation – is already casting a long shadow over business decisions.”
Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEG, said: “The brinkmanship involved in taking Brexit negotiations to the line, while leaving businesses guessing about the likely outcome, risks causing serious economic damage.”