Alex Stewart International director calls for clearer leadership from the government as Withdrawal Agreement row goes on

Published by Rhys Taylor-Brown on September 11th 2020, 1:01pm

While this week’s news has largely been dominated by division over the government’s plans to override elements of the Withdrawal Agreement struck with the EU in 2019, for many business leaders, there remains a desire for clear and robust leadership through the Covid-19 crisis after the announcement of new restrictions on social gatherings and details of a “moonshot” plan for testing came to light in recent days.

Graham Stewart, a director at inspection and analysis services provider Alex Stewart International, is one business executive who has been vocal about the need for the government to provide clearer direction to the country through the remainder of the crisis.

Leadership in Focus

In a discussion with the Leaders Council’s Scott Challinor, Stewart spoke about how “mixed messages” coming from the government was undermining public opinion of its handling of the pandemic, which in his view has been exacerbated by a deviation in strategy from the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Stewart said: “I think that here in the UK we would all benefit from clear and direct leadership as opposed to mixed messages at this point, as well as a more unified approach from the devolved governments who have often deviated from Westminster.

“We have seen a lot of political points scoring during this time. As a business, our main priority will remain on working in tandem with our staff, identifying problems and dealing with them when we are confronted with changes in scenario. It won’t be easy nor will it be 12 to 18 months of normal business because we are reliant on the market, but I an hoping to see common sense prevail and for people in the UK and wider world to be able to live more normally and continue working in a safe environment with more coherent direction and information coming from the respective governments.”

Reflecting on when the initial lockdown was announced by prime minister Boris Johnson on March 23, Stewart recalled that the government’s messages resulted in much confusion among businesses.

“In the first four to six weeks of the crisis following the March 23 lockdown announcement, there was a lot of confusion. Government messages were somewhat open to interpretation and ambiguous. However, I understood that we had to carry on as a business and we were given the green light by the government.”

Recalling how the firm was forced to adapt, Stewart added: “As a business, we knew we’d face difficulties with our normal services, so we listened to some ideas and decided to split our laboratory operations into two six-hour shifts, as opposed to eight hours. This ensured no cross-contamination risk between bubbles of workers, and we made sure social distancing guidelines were active in and around the workplace and outside the buildings. 75 per cent of our admin staff were also deployed to work remotely, which we put in place around seven to ten days before the lockdown was confirmed.”

Stewart also revealed that much of the firm’s ability to handle the crisis effectively was owed to effective communication with colleagues based in China where the outbreak originated, as well as showing clear leadership and direction of their own.

“We were given an advantage in a way because we have an office in Shanghai who had faced Covid head on before we did, and they returned to work on March 9, so they were in and out of lockdown far quicker than we were. I was advised that they made the wearing of face masks compulsory in the office and had begun taking temperatures on arrival, so we organised this quickly in addition to the Covid secure guidelines issued by the UK government.

“Clear leadership, direction and instruction from our senior management helped reassure our staff, so much concern and worry dissipated quite quickly as we went into the eye of the storm.”

Thanks to that leadership, the business has been able to navigate the pandemic thus far without severe setbacks.

Stewart explained: “Fortunately we haven’t been affected too badly overall. There has been shrinkage on the inspection side of the business in line with global trends. China was virtually closed for business for two months and China is the biggest buyer of commodities whether it is metals, minerals or agricultural products, and they are one of our major income sources. Once it was back in business, they weren’t able to be supplied from countries in South America or North America because they were then fighting the crisis themselves. So, it is like a vicious circle.

“Only in July did we start to see market recovery on the inspection side. On the laboratory side of our business, we’re only around five per cent down on last year and I’m proud we’ve got through this without too much damage so far. As for the next 12 months, with the variable of a second wave of cases it is still unclear as to what we can expect.”

Leadership Today

A row has ensued this week over the UK government’s plans to override elements of the EU Withdrawal Agreement in a no-deal scenario, which has threatened to compromise the ongoing trade negotiations with the bloc.

The Internal Market Bill, which will be debated in the Commons on Monday, outlines changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key element of the Withdrawal Agreement which will prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The new law would hand UK ministers the power to modify or “disapply” rules relating to the movement of goods that will enter force after the post-Brexit transition period in the event that the UK and EU do not agree on a free trade deal.

The UK government has said that the Northern Ireland Protocol will be “hugely harmful” to the peace process but concerned Conservative MPs could vote against it.

The EU called an emergency meeting in response to the publication of the Internal Markets Bill on Thursday and issued an ultimatum to the UK to abandon the plans or risk derailing trade negotiations, threatening legal action.

However, ministers have rebuffed the EU’s ultimatum saying it is necessary to uphold the Northern Ireland peace process, as trade talks are scheduled to resume on Monday amid “significant” differences.

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi said that the bill was needed as a fail-safe to ensure that “ambiguities” in the Withdrawal Agreement would not adversely affect the UK if such issues were not settled through the formal dispute resolution process.

Zahawi told BBC Radio Four: "It's not about if we implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Irish protocol, it's how we implement it.

"If we don't reach an agreement in time by the end of the year... we can't allow any adverse impacts on the communities in Northern Ireland.

"No government, no minister, can allow any community within our country, within the UK, to be damaged."

The UK said after the latest round of talks in London this week that it was committing to reaching a free trade agreement with the EU but warned that it was a “challenging” process.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has said that the UK will be willing to abandon negotiations should an agreement not be in place by October 15.

However, the government’s approach to changing the Withdrawal Agreement has aroused unease among Conservative MPs, with some rebel MPs tabling an amendment that would prevent the government from overriding the agreement. The Telegraph reports that over 30 MPs could back the amendment.

Even hard-line euro-sceptics have expressed concern over the government’s tactics.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, a member of the European Research Group [ERG], told LBC that the prime minister “should be more mindful of the reputational damage of playing such hardball”.

Sir Bob Neill, a senior Tory backbencher and chair of the Commons Justice Committee, said that he hoped the tabling of the amendment which has the support of MP’s who are not “natural rebels” would serve as “an indication as a government that really, you need to think very hard and carefully about going down this route.”

Leadership in History

On this day, the world mourns the victims of the September 11 attacks, carried out by the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda against the US on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

With 2,977 fatalities and over 25,000 injured, along with the billions in infrastructure and property damage, the attack is known as the single deadliest terror attack in human history and the single deadliest incident for firefighters and law enforcement officers in US history, with 343 and 72 killed, respectively.

In the aftermath of the attacks, then US president George W. Bush’s approval ratings soared by 90 per cent, On September 20, 2001, he addressed the nation and a joint session of the United States Congress regarding the events of September 11, the subsequent nine days of rescue and recovery efforts, and outlined his plans to respond to the attacks.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1368 condemned the attacks, and UK prime minister Tony Blair said that Britain stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the US. Blair travelled to Washington D.C. shortly thereafter to affirm British solidarity with the US, and attended Congress as a guest of president Bush, who declared that “America has no truer friend than Great Britain.”

Photo by Frederick Tubiermont on Unsplash

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Authored By

Rhys Taylor-Brown
Junior Editor
September 11th 2020, 1:01pm

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