Downing Street is asking Britain’s biggest companies to give public support to the Government’s approach to its Brexit negotiations, a move which has provoked fury in a string of blue-chip boardrooms.
Sky News has obtained a letter being circulated in FTSE 100 and other company boardrooms which praises ministers’ commitment to securing a transition period after the UK leaves the European Union (EU).
It also expresses confidence in the future of “a global Britain” and says that the Government’s Repeal Bill will “make Britain ready for life outside the EU”.
Executives in sectors including financial services, manufacturing and technology are among those approached about signing the letter, which is expected to be published as early as Thursday
Sources at some of the UK’s biggest businesses expressed incredulity at the request from No 10, which comes at a time when Theresa May’s relationship with the private sector is already under strain.
That tension was reinforced on Wednesday when leaked details of the Government’s future immigration policy proposals were criticised by an array of business groups.
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One source who has seen the draft said it was reminiscent of the ‘Project Fear’ campaign that pro-remain supporters were accused of conducting before the EU referendum.
The identity of the officials responsible for circulating the draft letter was unclear on Wednesday, or whether Mrs May was aware of the plan to release it.
Sources said the approach from officials had been accompanied by a request to sign it before the end of the week.
It is possible that a final version of the letter could differ from the draft seen by Sky News, said one source.
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The letter reads: “We write as leaders of some of the UK’s most dynamic businesses operating in sectors as diverse as technology, financial services and advanced manufacturing.
“Some of us personally supported the remain or leave campaigns at last year’s referendum on EU membership, others did not make their positions public.
“But fifteen months later, we all share an understanding that Brexit is happening, a commitment to ensure that we make a success of the outcome for the whole country, and a confidence that a global Britain has the potential to become one of the most productive economies of the 21st century.
“This month the Government’s Repeal Bill will initiate a programme of legislation that will make Britain ready for life outside the EU.
“We believe this is a good time for employers to work with Government and Parliament to make a success of Brexit and secure a bright future for our country.
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“We welcome the Government’s commitment to negotiating an interim period so that firms can ensure they are ready to adapt to the changing relationships and thrive under the new partnership being created with the EU.
“And as the UK makes progress towards establishing stronger trading links with markets like the US, India, Japan and Mexico, British businesses who know these markets well should stand ready to use their expertise and networks to cement future relationships.
“As business leaders, we have a duty to our shareholders and employees to continue to grow our businesses and ensure that they remain strong.
“As part of this we are also determined to see the UK continue to be a prosperous and united force for good in the world and are ready to play our full part to achieve this as Britain leaves the European Union.”
Several FTSE 100 executives expressed incredulity at the approach from Downing Street, with one saying: “There is no way we could sign this given the current state of chaos surrounding the (Brexit) talks.”
Contact between ministers and the private sector has been intensified since June’s general election, with regular meetings now scheduled between various groups involving Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, and Greg Clark, Business Secretary.
Mrs May has also reintroduced a version of the business advisory group which met frequently under David Cameron.
During Mr Cameron’s premiership, letters from company bosses were often used during election and referendum campaigns to back the Conservatives or the Government’s position.
However, no such letter appeared from Tory-supporting bosses during this year’s general election campaign, reflecting Mrs May’s perceived disdain for enlisting the support of company bosses.
None of the companies contacted by Sky News would comment, while a Downing Street spokesman declined to comment.