The Brexit party has announced its first policy beyond leaving the EU: saving British Steel by turning it into a “John Lewis-style” company part-owned by the workers.
The party’s chairman, Richard Tice, unveiled the policy on Tuesday in Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, where 5,000 jobs are on the line after privately owned British Steel went into insolvency last month.
He proposed a “strategic national corporation, which will blend the best of private sector expertise and capital; long-term, patient state capital; as well as improving productivity through a John Lewis-style form of shared ownership for the workers”.
The idea seemed a hybrid of Conservative and Labour policy: while the Conservative government looks for a private buyer for British Steel, Jeremy Corbyn wants it to be nationalised.
Tice dismissed warnings from Gareth Stace, the director general of the trade body UK Steel, who said Brexit “will not improve the situation for the steel sector but it has the potential to cause a great deal of damage”.
Stace was an “establishment” figure, Tice claimed. “I’m afraid some of these industry lobby groups are part of the establishment and are simply wrong. What is most important to make British steel is not the tariffs, it’s the cost of business rates, it’s the cost of energy and it’s the emissions trading scheme.”
UK Steel has previously called on the government to tackle industrial electricity prices, which are twice those in France, as well as a reduction in UK business rates. According to Stace, these are “five to 10 times higher than elsewhere in the EU, perversely increasing costs for those that modernise and upgrade”.
Tice was accompanied in Scunthorpe by Simon Boyd, the managing director of Reidsteel, a structural steel company based in Dorset. He said EU regulations meant it was “easier for us to export to Mongolia than France”, drawing tuts of disapproval from the carefully vetted audience, who had each paid £2.50 to attend the press conference.
Boyd, who campaigned against the working time directive, said EU competition rules meant his firm lost a contract in Rotherham to a Portuguese firm, who benefited from significantly lower energy costs in Portugal and then came to Yorkshire and employed eastern European labourers.
Not everyone was convinced by the Brexit party’s proposal. Among those in the audience was Jim Crossman, a former chief engineer of British Steel, who went on to be chief executive of Caparo Merchant Bar (now Liberty Steel Scunthorpe), which makes steel bars.
“I’m a Brexit supporter but I am unsure they can bring this off,” he said. “The big worry I have is that while Rome is burning and the industry is reducing, the skills in the industry will leave because they are unsure if British Steel will survive … I don’t personally think there will be a private buyer who will buy the whole unit, including the blast furnaces, which need a lot of capital investment. They might strip out the better assets.”
The Brexit party polled 47% of the European parliamentary vote in North Lincolnshire, with Labour second (12.5%) and the Conservatives third (11.5%). It is contesting Thursday’s byelection in Peterborough and is beginning to develop a policy platform to fight a general election, should one be called before the UK leaves the EU.
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