Why have foodservice businesses been reluctant to wade into the referendum debate?

A vote to leave the EU would have an enormous impact on the foodservice sector – but businesses have so far been reluctant to wade into the referendum debate.

Very soon we will know whether the UK public has voted to leave the EU. It barely needs repeating that the political ramifications of a vote to leave would be monumental.

  • Would the prime minister be forced to step down triggering a leadership election?
  • Would the overwhelmingly pro-EU Scotland force another referendum on the country’s membership of the UK?
  • Could the pro-remain environment secretary, Liz Truss, possibly remain in post having consistently refused to entertain the prospect of a plan B for UK agriculture in the event of Brexit?

The government and others in the remain camp will hope such questions need never be answered after the vote on June 23rd, and that the pattern of recent national votes holds true with the public choosing the status quo over a leap into the unknown.

But one can’t help but feel that, in having gone all-in in its campaign for continued EU membership (and necessarily so, since setting out a series of plan Bs is simply doing the leave camp’s job for them), the government has multiplied the chaos that would be engendered by Brexit.

And what of the voice of business? In February, Footprint noted that food businesses had been non-committal in their attitudes towards the referendum. Four months later and several industry groups have finally climbed off of the fence.

The National Farmers Union has declared that the interests of farmers are best served by staying in the EU; however, it will not be actively campaigning in the referendum nor advising members on how to vote.

The Food and Drink Federation, meanwhile, published a poll in April that revealed 71% of its members believed their interests would be best served by remaining in the EU, leading the FDF itself to state: “Our view is clear – the UK should remain a member!”

Conversely, the hospitality industry has been more equivocal – a surprising state of affairs, perhaps, given what is at stake for a sector that relies heavily on migrant labour and imports a large proportion of its food from the EU. True, the Institute of Hospitality recently published a survey that showed 52.4% of UK hospitality managers want Britain to stay in the EU, against 36.3% who back a vote to leave, but neither the IoH nor the British Hospitality Association have come out decisively for or against Brexit.

Perhaps these industry bodies feel it is their role to inform rather than persuade members? Or maybe they feel the pros and cons of the UK’s membership of the EU balance each other out? Either way, time is running out for any representative body that wants the voice of the foodservice industry to be heard in the final days of the campaign.

The contribution of individual companies in our sector has been muted at best – presumably since businesses are reluctant to potentially alienate a portion of their customer base by positioning themselves on the opposite side of a passionate debate. Tim Martin, the chairman of the JD Wetherspoon pub chain, is a notable exception as an industry leader who has publicly supported the leave campaign, while the Compass CEO, Paul Walsh, signed a letter to the Times backing a remain vote in a personal capacity.

Whether such diplomacy will remain intact should the polls tighten in the days leading up to the vote remains to be seen. At the very least, big businesses can expect to come under pressure from campaigners to declare their allegiance in the hope of swaying the last few undecided voters.

Political events don’t come much bigger for the food industry than the vote on June 23rd. Whether you favour business as usual or believe it’s time to change our relationship with Europe, the day of reckoning is nigh.

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