'Post-Brexit Britain has all the ingredients, now we need to make the UK a real global contributor' - EY
EY’s Head of Government and Public Sector Björn Conway talks to PoliticsHome’s Agnes Chambre about the challenges and opportunities of a post-Brexit Britain.
On the morning of 24 June 2016, Björn Conway was in Amsterdam on a day’s annual leave.
While Europe reeled from the shock of Britain's decision to leave the EU, the head of Government and Public Sector at EY was quizzed by bemused Dutch people and other Europeans who wanted to know why. He described it as “a day of questions”.
Today, he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is ready to talk about the opportunities and challenges surrounding Government and the Public Sector as the UK prepares to quit the club it has been a member of for 40 years.
Conway believes the first thing that needs to be done is to pick through everything that needs to be done and make a plan. For a country that has been inundated with information about Brexit for the last few months, clarity seems a good place to start.
“I think the first thing is to work out what's important and what's urgent and what can be left until later. A lot of the messages we're hearing at the moment are about the scale of the task – and it is very, very large – but it's also not a particularly well defined task.”
But Conway doesn’t just see challenges, he sees huge opportunity. He believes the UK has the ability to excel outside the European Union and in a global economy.
He compares the situation Britain is currently in to being on a health drive: “our body goes into shock for a moment but comes out stronger at the end of it”.
But first, the UK must overcome that shock.
Part of the challenge for the civil service and the government is the complexity and scale of the challenge and the interconnectivity of every task, Conway explains.
The answer, Conway believes, is making departments and plans more joined up. This idea is something Conway views as vital to making the decision on the EU as advantageous as possible.
“This is a test for the UK, it's an opportunity for government to work more seamlessly, more closely together to provide a united front. We’ve got all the basic ingredients. This is about bringing things together so we have a stretching vision for where we see Britain in the future. And then we can start talking very seriously about the UK being a real global contributor.”
Part of the “basic ingredients” Conway is referring to are the new departments Theresa May created and merged after being sworn in as Prime Minister.
The new departments for Exiting the European Union, International Trade and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are all headed up by Brexiteers, and are intended to help Britain navigate itself out of the uncertainty of the vote.
“I think the challenge for the UK in terms of projecting a consistent, coherent and planned approach for the external world is for the new departments to operate in a joined up way.”
“There's a lot of machinery of government changing and it's important that we don't get distracted by that and become too inwardly focused on how those departments should be structured and on who does what.”
“We've got very limited resources so we need to make sure those resources are having the maximum impact, doing the best we can at minimising waste in duplicated areas.”
Conway believes the UK has lessons to learn from other countries.
“Other countries link up trade, investment, economic policy, industrial strategy, cultural policy and international influence far better than the UK has traditionally. China is probably the greatest exponent having a policy body that sits above outward facing departments. They now lead the way and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank with 50 countries signing up is an example of the sort of innovative global collaboration that it would be great to see the UK leading.”
“The announcement on Tuesday of a new cabinet committees with one to focus on exiting the EU and International trade is a great first step.”
For the government and the public sector, Conway’s biggest concern is that they don’t maximise the opportunity that's been presented.
“For businesses and government, it's about being proactive, agile and making sure that the business cases being made have got very strong economic underpinnings. It's not going to be good enough to have a good news story that's going to last for a few seconds; it's got to feed through into a strong economic and social impact.”
Conway advises businesses to position themselves to take advantage of new trade deal opportunities: “The UK is the fifth largest economy, it's going to be integral to the global economy in the future and it is still a very attractive, competitive and connected environment. So, the idea of new trade deals will be an opportunity.”
“I think one of the intrinsic things about the UK that we shouldn't underplay is the attractive environment for businesses and investment. Quality of life in the UK, the talent, the diversity, the culture, the strength of our education systems and their inherent infrastructure all contribute to making the UK a great place to do business.”
Before the vote, Conway had seen the benefit in staying in the European Union, but now he, like many others, is taking a much more positive view of the decision.
“The referendum outcome delivered the message so people are embracing it. I think there are still challenges around about what Brexit is, what it means, how far it goes, and I think actually starting that with a united team that are going to work together is the best place to begin.”