Former Waitrose boss, ex-David Cameron trade tsar appointee and author Mark Price (pictured) was on hand to give some timely thoughts on Brexit this week, as guest speaker at the FDF President’s Reception.
The self-confessed Remainer, who quit his role as international trade minister in September amid rumours of a falling out with hard-line Brexiteers in Theresa May’s cabinet, also has a new book to plug.
Workplace Fables is a collection of true stories from the John Lewis veteran, demonstrating the good, bad and ugly practices he has come across in his 40-year career. He has, thoughtfully, disguised real names and companies.
Price ended his speech giving his favourite fable of all, a story of ancient Greek grape harvesters and a journey with their poor donkey. Without wanting to spoil or repeat the tale, it ends badly for the donkey. The moral? “If you try to please everybody, you might as well kiss your ass goodbye.”
Some in the room were left wondering whether Price was thinking not about Waitrose but about May herself. Certainly that modern fable of a bunch of donkeys who go to Brussels to sign one of the most important deals in history – only to realise at the 11th hour they have lost the approval of their key partner, in desperation to remove uncertainty over border trade – must rank up there with any of Price’s tales of woe.
It was certainly the talk of the room as, not for the first time, senior food and drink industry figures privately debated how long the PM had left to go before she ended up suffering the same fate as the aforementioned ass.
Yet, amid huge fears from business over the prospect of a hard Irish border, killer EU tariffs and the looming cliff edge, and despite his own deep reservations, Price insisted there were still reasons to be cheerful.
Army of civil servants
For a start, the army of civil servants negotiating Brexit are “the best in the world”, he declared. He also suggested fears over the collapse of multi-lateral trade deals after our exit from the EU, as well as what WTO tariffs could mean for industry and prices, were overblown.
Price said that despite its hawks, the EU was desperate to prioritise food and drink and the massive UK market for exports in any deal. Countries around the world were queuing up to do business with us post-Brexit, he added.
Price also said it had been a vital breakthrough for both sides to agree to a two-year transition period to allow the huge upheaval to sink in.
“I feel confident that we can and should be successful,” he said. “I voted to remain and there will be bumps in the road and dips on the way.
“But I see little point now in having an ‘I told you so’ attitude when those bumps come along.
“Businesses should be thinking about what life will look like in a post-Brexit age.”
In fairness, most in the room found it hard to extend their thoughts too far beyond next week, with historic EU agreements to be signed, if May is to cling on and move on to trade talks.
But modern fable or not, it was refreshing to hear something positive for a change.