The UK fashion industry has questioned new prime minister Boris Johnson’s support for British businesses and raised concerns over the strong possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson won the ballot with 92,152 votes to 46,656 and will take office on Wednesday following incumbent Theresa May’s official resignation.
During the leadership campaign, Johnson pledged planning reforms to ease change of use for high street properties and promised to make immediate use of the chancellor’s £675m Future High Streets Fund.
However, retailers were sceptical that they would be high on Johnson’s priority list.
“This is the UK’s Donald Trump moment,” said Fergus Patterson, managing director – northern Europe at Gant. “Are we even on Boris Johnson’s radar, in terms of business rate reforms or pushing landlords towards thinking differently about calculating rents? I’m not expecting [UK businesses] to be anywhere on his agenda for the foreseeable future.”
Michele Poynter, owner of independent lingerie retailer Mish in Wadebridge, Cornwall, agreed: “I’m not happy about the appointment of Boris, but I wouldn’t have been happy either way. [Johnson] needs to look at helping British businesses. Something has to give. He needs to address business rates because we’re carrying the burden of the [online-only] businesses.
“He also needs to review the minimum wage and provide more support for basic wages.”
The continued uncertainty over Brexit was another concern. Johnson has said Britain will leave the European Union by the agreed departure date of 31 October, with or without a deal.
“I think everyone has huge question marks over his availability and suitability,” said James Eden, founder of British premium menswear label Private White VC. “We’re a business that is booming, but even we are cautious about what it means for our labour pool, and ability to import and export.
“We need clarity on what is going to happen with international trade and Brexit, and to understand what the impacts are for migrant workers to work in industries such as manufacturing.”
One supplier said: “I’m disappointed [with the result] because it brings more uncertainty, as Boris said he’d be happy to leave the EU without a deal, which is a nightmare for trade and commerce.
“We know the high street needs investment. We know we need positive moves on duties, but domestic policy will continue to take a back seat until Brexit is sorted.”
Tony Evans, managing director of Jacobson Group, which owns footwear brands including Gola, Ravel and Lotus, agreed: “I would urge Boris to try to clarify the situation with the EU and come to an agreement, because small-to-medium-sized businesses are the ones that will be the worst hit over future uncertainty. We need to move forward and plan accordingly because we’ve had our hands tied behind our backs since the referendum.”
Andrew Pace, director of Tyne and Wear-based supplier Panda Sourcing, said: “I’m hoping Boris will stop being a buffoon and get his head down to help businesses across the country. He needs to back small businesses, cut taxes, and try and promote business as a whole.
“Hopefully he can get some confidence in the country so that the pound can rally against the dollar.”
Kate Hills, founder of Make It British, was positive about a swift Brexit deal for UK manufacturers, but raised concerns over the impact of a no deal: “It sounds like he will push Brexit through no matter what, which is good because so many UK manufacturers have been in state of limbo.
“The downside of no deal is it is going to have a big impact on supply chain. The priority has got to be immigration as far as UK fashion is concerned – allowing skilled workers to come from Europe.”
Jenny Holloway, chief executive at London manufacturer Fashion Enter, agreed: “What we need now is more common sense and to reduce the cap for the occupation visa list from £30,000 down to £20,000 and add on skilled machinists.”
Johnson is expected to appoint his new cabinet over the coming fortnight, including a new chancellor.
Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association, told Drapers he was concerned about the impact of this on business rates reform: “With a new chancellor often comes a new Treasury, too, and it will derail what is a necessary complete reform of business rates. Business rates are a burden [for independent retailers] and we had made some really good progress with the [current Treasury].”
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said: “Retailers employ 3 million people across the UK, making the industry the UK’s largest private sector employer, and the burden of business rates and other public policy costs put these jobs and our high streets at risk.
“With retail conditions the toughest they have been for a decade, the new prime minister must act to support the successful reinvention of retail locations and local communities. We hope the new government will commit to a full review of the broken business rate system, and collaborate with the BRC on a strategy to bolster the retail industry during this time of rapid change.”
British Footwear Association CEO, Lucy Reece-Raybould, said: ”Our message is clear, our members, all their employees and all their consumers are relying on [Johnson] to get the right deal to protect over £1.7 bn in footwear exports alone. To get the right deal for the footwear industry which protects our members; members who are exporting to countries all over the world, 87% of exports to the EU alone, and rely on products imported from the EU to produce these high-quality exports.
“It is vital to get the right deal to deliver stability in the high street to generate consumer confidence and to re-start the retail economy, thereby protecting our retail members too.”