The retail industry fears that prime minister Theresa May’s decision to step down as leader of the Conservative Party will cause “further disruption and political turmoil” for UK businesses, and has urged her successor to avoid a “catastrophic” no-deal Brexit.
May has announced her resignation with effect from 7 June, after failing to gain the support of her party for the latest iteration of the proposed European Union withdrawal bill.
In an statement at Downing Street this morning, she said: “I have done everything I can to convince MPs to back that deal … sadly I have not been able to do so.”
She added that it would remain a source of great regret that she could not deliver Brexit.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said May had made the right decision to resign and called for an immediate general election.
He said: “The prime minister is right to have resigned. She has now accepted what the country has known for months: she cannot govern, and nor can her divided and disintegrating party … whoever becomes the new Conservative leader must let the people decide our country’s future, through an immediate general election.”
The retail industry agreed that it was “time for [May] to go”, however, many expressed concern that “the last thing the country needs is further disruption and political turmoil”.
“There are only five months before Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal, causing prices to rise and reducing the availability of many goods on the shelves,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
“A no-deal Brexit in October would present the worst of all worlds for our high streets and those who shop there. Retailers will be preparing for Christmas, stretching already-limited warehousing capacity, and the UK will be importing most of its fresh food from the EU, magnifying the impact of border delays.
“It is vital that the next prime minister can find a solution that both avoids a catastrophic no-deal Brexit and commands the support of parliament.”
Robert Perkins, chairman of the British Footwear Association (BFA), agreed: “The country has suffered from huge uncertainty over the last two to three years, and this has damaged both consumer confidence and business investment planning. The uncertainty has also damaged the value of the pound and the reputation of Britain abroad.
“Theresa May has tried to resolve the political impasse but has been unable to carry a sufficient number of MPs with her. It is now time for someone else to try and unite the country behind an ambitious vision for our country, and give consumers and business confidence in that future.”
Jayne West, BFA training and development manager, added: “Like other industry sectors, the British footwear industry and our global partners urgently need clarity. We hope the UK parliament will act quickly following this announcement and move on to dealing with pressing issues around international commerce.”
Martin Foster, British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA) member and managing director at Lakeland Leather, said: “I admire [May’s] resilience in what has undoubtedly been one of the most difficult political periods in our recent history. She is clearly hard working, committed and appears to be honest with high levels of professional integrity.
“But, as leader, at times you must be prepared to be unpopular, outspoken and ruthless. From the outset, she tried to please too many party members, and, as a result was pulled in many different directions.
“I agree it’s time for her to go. However, my fear is that the last thing the country needs is further disruption and political turmoil. It’s time to let the public decide how we proceed with Brexit.
“Further political distraction is preventing us running the country. This causes me and other business leaders to be very cautious about the future: should we invest, or should we batten down the hatches?”
May said she would continue to serve as prime minster while a Conservative leadership contest takes place. Boris Johnson, Esther McVey and Rory Stewart have said they intend to run for the party leadership.
Foster added: “Fundamentally, we appear to be lacking good political leaders.
“I’d struggle to give you a name of any politician in any party that I believe will succeed with Brexit and the aftermath of issues the UK will need to overcome.”
Fergus Patterson, managing director – northern Europe at Gant, agreed: “Given the importance of Brexit on the entire UK economy, the manner in which the government and the Conservative Party have conducted themselves is reprehensible.
“There appears to have never been a coherent plan as to how to deliver a Brexit that secures our economy, and they are more concerned with in-fighting and leadership battles than in doing their elected jobs.
“The current crop of Tory ‘leadership’ candidates scare the life out of me, as they represent the worst bunch of career politicians and vested-interest individuals I’ve witnessed in UK politics. If it wasn’t for the equal ineptitude of the opposition Labour Party, I doubt the Conservatives would see office again in my lifetime.”
Rob Feldmann, chief executive of BrandAlley, said: “My initial feeling is that she’s been paralysed through the last couple of months because she hasn’t been able to deal with Brexit. A new leader might be a good thing, but the alternatives are scary.
“Her departure increases the likelihood of a hard Brexit, which would be catastrophic.”
Meanwhile, Martin Brighty, owner of menswear independent Peckham Rye in Carnaby, central London, said May’s decision to leave “will not make much difference” because the damage to businesses has already been done: “In many industries – retail, steel, food, travel, science, education, medicine – it’s irreversible damage.
“The decline caused by Brexit and the management of it has created a level of uncertainty. Markets hate uncertainty because we can’t plan for the future.”