It’s been a frenetic time of late at the SMMT.
Apart from the day to day business of trying to put a brave face on some pretty catastrophic numbers for the UK automotive industry, the body has been wheeling and dealing behind the scenes in a bid to read the runes of the new political landscape.
The UK’s just emerged from a – thankfully brief – general election and apart from the rather surreal interregnum as the three main parties engaged in a bizarre political dance with each other – it has come up with its first coalition since the second world war.
And as one of Britain’s most significant employers, the car industry has benefited from the SMMT’s tireless lobbying behind the scenes as it looks to ensure backing from the new political masters.
SMMT’s chief executive Paul Everitt had been talking to all the major political players before polling took place, but has now had to adjust to the reality there might not be absolute consensus in the dual Liberal and Conservative party elements to negotiations. Such is the nature of coalitions.
Continuity is important here. The previous administration under the guise of the omnipresent Lord Mandelson as business secretary, approved EUR300m (US$371m) in loan guarantees for example, to GM Europe to secure jobs and investment in the UK.
It’s not yet clear what the new administration’s automotive policy will be, but it would be extraordinary if it were to deviate much from its predecessor’s policy. There is simply too much political capital in Sunderland, Derbyshire, Swindon et al to play fast and loose with so many jobs.
There is a familiar cry that this is throwing money at companies that are overwhelmingly foreign, but is that really important in this era of globalisation? There are plenty of examples of British companies operating around the world – from global banking empires to UK supermarket behemoths.
It just so happens the UK has lost its once pre-eminent position as car manufacturers which are British -owned, but the country is pretty good at making them for everyone else. And that’s not even to mention the vast supply chain that secures huge numbers of jobs in the UK and all the R&D and technology capability.
And it’s not by chance that overseas manufacturers choose to base themselves in the UK. They clearly have a choice and there are plenty of lower-cost economies in eastern Europe to which they could easily locate.
But they choose the UK for its relative stability and – as Everitt outlined to just-auto at yesterday’s SMMT Test day – they view our labour relations as calm.
That certainly can’t be said of plenty of European countries where automotive strife can often form part of the political norm. Britain used to be like that of course but the days of strikes being decided by a dodgy show of hands in the park across the road and flying pickets have long gone.
It’s also no coincidence so many Formula 1 teams have chosen to set up shop in the UK. Borrowing extensively from British aerospace know-how, the sport is heavily implanted in the UK consciousness
Witness the perennial debate about whether or not the rather old-fashioned but glorious Silverstone circuit should be axed from the F1 calendar.
The sheer importance of having a British round – and by implication the basing of so many teams here – appeared even to sway the hard-nosed businessman and F1 impresario that is Bernie Ecclestone.