No doubt you’ve seen the news that, unlike some of the other car manufacturers, Nissan has decided to stay in the UK. Phew! There must have been a collective sigh of relief in Sunderland that was so loud, it made the wings of the Angel of the North flap 13 miles away in Gateshead. Surely everyone in the country was delighted disaster had been averted?
Nissan’s chief operating officer (COO) Ashwani Gupta, who had been the one to threaten the UK government that Nissan would quit the country if Boris Johnson went for no deal, hailed the prime minister’s (PM) thin gruel deal with the EU and declared it would confer a competitive advantage on Nissan. The competitive advantage it confers is due to other car manufacturers, like Honda, packing up and quitting the UK, strengthening Nissan’s position in our market. Gupta hinted at this by saying Brexit would allow Nissan to “redefine the industry”. Ignoring this detail, Brexit leaders seized on Gupta’s words as a ringing endorsement of the deal.
Boris Johnson said the commitment to Sunderland was “a great vote of confidence in the UK and fantastic news for the brilliant Nissan workforce in Sunderland and electric vehicle manufacturing in this country”. OK. So now we’re taking a decision to stay, made by a company embedded here for over 30 years and operating successfully while we were members of the EU, as a Brexit win, are we? Even though we have bribed them with £61 million to stay? Or are we counting ‘saving’ £19 million on the original £80 million promised by Theresa May in October 2016 as another Brexit win? If so, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you…
As if that wasn’t bizarre enough, several high-profile Brexiters then started gloating. Nigel Farage berated Remainers for having “scaremongered” over the potential closure of Nissan, even though, as already mentioned, it was Nissan’s COO who made that particular ‘forecast’. Still, our Nigel is not one to let facts get in the way —not when he spots an opportunity to whip up division and encourage his followers to hate anyone who harbours pro-European sentiment.
Next up was former MP, minister and Privy Councillor Caroline Flint. She flipped from being a Remainer to an arch Brexiter, consistently voting with the Tories, but that didn’t save her in her Don Valley ‘red wall’ seat in the 2019 general election. It’s almost as if Brexit wasn’t the only problem… but let’s not open up old wounds. Oh, wait. That’s exactly what she tried to do on the Nissan news.
Who could she possibly mean? Of course, having blamed ‘über-Remainers’ for her defeat after 22 years as an MP, she was taking a veiled pop-shot at Remainers. She was another one who needed to be reminded about whom exactly had said Nissan would leave the UK in the event of no-deal. Also, that it was Remainers, not Brexiters, who had stood alongside Sunderland’s Nissan workers in all weathers over months of protest against a no-deal Brexit closure of their plant.
Odd, isn’t it, that none of these über-Brexiters are mentioning fishing?
Look carefully at the statement!
Meanwhile, people were beginning to look more closely at the Nissan statement. Gupta, far too discreet to mention that having fewer competitors enhanced Nissan’s competitive advantage, had put it down to the company having a UK-based electric car battery supplier. Indeed, as the electric battery-manufacturer used to be part of Nissan, it is right next door to the Sunderland plant. (Nissan sold a 75 per cent stake in it to Chinese renewable group Envision Group in 2018.) In order to sell the new 239-mile-range version of its Leaf electric cars into the EU, Nissan will invest in expanding UK battery production to include 62-kilowatt-hour batteries, currently produced in Japan. At present the UK plant only produces 40-kilowatt-hour batteries for the 168-mile-range Leaf.
As both the UK and EU have passed laws that electric cars must have 55 per cent locally-sourced content by 2027, the competitive advantage of having a UK-based electric battery manufacturer will not last long. Other European countries have rushed to build giga-factories, as battery plants are known. Tesla had originally intended to build capacity in the UK, but eventually went to Germany instead because Johnson was flirting with no-deal Brexit. (Petrol and diesel cars must meet the 55 per cent rule immediately, which was a major concession by Johnson, who had wanted the rule of origin threshold to be only 45 per cent.)
On top of this, eagle-eyed Japan analyst Pernille Rudin, who probably knows more about Japan than all 650 of our MPs put together, had noticed that Nissan statements only mention future models are being ‘explored’ and ‘discussed’, but contain no firm commitments. What happens with models like Ariya, currently to be manufactured only in Japan, is crucial to safeguard Sunderland’s future. In other words, while there is hope, it is too soon to crow too loudly. Boris Johnson had better not wreck the economy too much (more).
What is truly alarming is that there are rumours of a secret pact between our duplicitous government and Nissan that involves not just the £61 million bung in state aid, but also a commitment to cut workers’ rights as a way to compensate Nissan for extra customs costs. If this is true, it is truly despicable, and means the fight to save workers’ rights is lost before it has started.
It would also explain why Gupta has changed his tune on lower profit margins due to Brexit costs. Previously he had warned that Nissan’s presence would be “unsustainable” in the UK. Now he says, “The sort of problems that we are seeing in the ports is peanuts, frankly. For a global manufacturer that is running 150 markets and 40 plants around the world, to have additional documentation and to fill out a form at the border, it’s nothing.”
Unfortunately, the same is not true for small and medium enterprises who do not have these resources to call on, but that’s a different article…
Seeing people looking beyond the optimistic headlines and treating the government’s narrative about Nissan being a ‘Brexit win’ with a healthy dose of scepticism was all too much for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland MP Simon Clarke. He moaned about negativity.
What is wrong with honest analysis?
Since when has honest analysis been ‘negativity’? This is a milder form of the old Brexiter cry of ‘project fear’, used to deter voters from paying attention to warnings about potential risks and impacts of the Brexit project. All that’s changed in the past four-and-a-half years is that gaslighting by Brexiters now in government has shifted up a gear and become more subtle. We must be alert to their manipulation and deception, and guard against their effects by calling them out.
For more information on the Nissan story, read this piece by our sister paper North East Bylines: