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Unilever’s U-turn is another blow to Project Fear

5 October 2018

12:25 PM

5 October 2018

12:25 PM

How funny. Remember how, when Unilever announced back in March that it had decided to move its headquarters from London to Rotterdam, it was all to do with Brexit? According to the Guardian’s subheadline on 14 March: ‘Brexit and favourable business conditions in Netherlands said to be behind decision’. The following day an FT leader asserted: ‘Unilever’s protestations that [the move] has nothing to do with Brexit do not convince’. It went on to add: ‘The decision is clearly coloured by the approach Theresa May has taken on Brexit, and by the way she has handled relations with business.’ As for the BBC, while its news story on 15 March quoted Unilever as saying the move had nothing to do with Brexit, it also quoted at some length Eloise Todd, chief executive of the Best for Britain group: ‘The government are saying to anyone who will listen this is not to do with Brexit, but anyone with any sense knows it’s a factor. The company has had an HQ in the UK for over 90 years, and all that history and legacy has gone down the plughole.’

This morning, Unilever announced that it has reversed its decision, after opposition from large shareholders. The company will continue to list its shares, as it does now, in both London and Amsterdam. And guess what? The decision had nothing to do with Brexit all along. The Guardian’s story this morning states: ‘Unilever has throughout insisted the move to Rotterdam was ‘nothing to do with Brexit”. As for the FT’s coverage on the story, the only reference to Brexit is this line: ‘The debate over Unilever’s plan became fraught with symbolism coming only months ahead of Brexit given that Unilever is a big employer and makes popular British products like Marmite.’ On the BBC website, business editor Simon Jack writes: ‘The proposed move was a reaction to the hostile but short-lived takeover bid from Kraft Heinz, and was never about Brexit.’ So, in other words, there was never any genuine link between Brexit and Unilever’s move away from London.

It fits a pattern we have seen ever since the referendum in 2016: good economic news is ‘in spite of Brexit’ or has nothing to do with it, while all bad economic news has the fingerprints of Brexit all over it. Sorry, but after Unilever’s decision today, it just doesn’t wash.


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