Trade Unlocked: Businesses find their voice post-Brexit

Brexit has fundamentally changed the UK’s trading landscape. For the first time in decades, we must look after our own trade policy and new trade barriers coupled with increased uncertainty has left some businesses experiencing significant challenges. 

Some of the new trade deals forged in the wake of Brexit are undercutting domestic businesses, putting our standards and protections at risk, and increasing costs for consumers. Too many firms are having to pull down the shutters for good. 

As Secretariat to the UK Trade and Business Commission (UKTBC), Best for Britain has heard from hundreds of businesses about the trade barriers they are facing. The UKTBC has been gathering evidence since 2021 to understand how new trading relationships are impacting the UK economy. In June 2023, the UKTBC gathered our extensive evidence into a comprehensive blueprint, ‘Trading our way to prosperity: a blueprint for policymakers’.

Through this solutions-focused research, it became clear that, despite the UK’s abundance of talent, creativity, expertise, and world-leading businesses, business leaders have too often been left behind in the conversation on international trade.  As political parties draft manifestos ahead of the next election and the future of trade policy is decided, giving businesses a platform to share their experience, expertise and ideas has never been more important. 

That is how Trade Unlocked was born. On the 20th of June at Birmingham NEC, Best for Britain brought hundreds of businesses and policymakers together to discuss what the future of trade policy must look like. It was the first national conference that empowered businesses of all sizes from all parts of the economy and all corners of the country to speak directly to decision makers through real time polling and consultation. 

The conference was opened by speeches from our CEO Naomi Smith, Juergen Maier, former CEO of Siemens, and broadcaster Ayesha Hazarika. We heard from Lord Karen Bilimoria, Founder of Cobra Beer, and the Shadow Secretary for International Trade, Nick Thomas-Symonds. Thomas-Symonds set out the trading ambitions for a Labour Government, to ‘fix the holes in Johnson’s Brexit deal’ and ‘tear down barriers’ facing businesses. 

We hosted eleven expert panels addressing the issues that impact all businesses, freeing trade, supply chains, levelling-up, geopolitics, and more. Our panels were composed of SME leaders, trade body representatives, policymakers and big business- and all delegates were encouraged to contribute through live polling and Q&As. The UK Trade and Business Commission gathered feedback from experts on the feasibility and application of the recommendations detailed in their report. The results were overwhelmingly positive. 

Throughout the day, there were presentations from businesses and organisations in our industry zone. In sector specific pods, delegates networked and collaborated. 

In his afternoon keynote, Chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, Paul Drechsler, asserted the need for an industrial strategy that recognises the strengths of the UK economy. He was followed by Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy who showed that Labour were listening, announcing plans to create a new council of business leaders to help inform trade policy, committing to put industry at the heart of the UK’s diplomatic thinking and confirming that a Labour government would prioritise strengthening relations with our largest trading partners in the EU. 

By the end of the day, hundreds of businesses had made their voices heard, and their message was clear: the UK Government cannot meet its targets of growth without listening to the  business community and drawing on their expertise. They know what they need to make their businesses grow, they know the challenges they face and the opportunities up for grabs. They also know that any government serious about growth must strengthen our relationship with our closest and largest trading partners in the EU. 

From the start we knew that this would not just be a day of discussion, but a forum through which policy could be developed directly from the business community. Brexit may have changed the UK’s proposition to the rest of the world, but Trade Unlocked demonstrated just how many businesses are ready to repair our trading relationships with the EU and put trade prosperity at the heart of the next UK Government’s agenda. 

At Best for Britain, we are going to keep up the momentum of Trade Unlocked and make sure this Government, or the next, delivers real solutions for businesses in the UK.