Political concerns overshadowed the second day of the Farnborough International Airshow as business leaders and politicians alike expressed concerns about the government’s ability to get its Brexit proposals through the House of Commons.
Following a successful first day at the event, during which a record $46.2bn (£35bn) worth of deals were announced, there was anxiety that a deal on frictionless goods trade between Britain and the EU post-Brexit – the key element in the Chequers Agreement that forms the basis of the government’s Brexit white paper – may be in jeopardy.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, said MPs needed to “calm down” so that clear heads would prevail.
She pointed out the importance of a deal with the EU that allowed for free trade of goods after Brexit for the UK’s aerospace and defence sector which, after that of the United States, is the biggest in the world.
Nicky Morgan, chair of the treasury select committee, told Sky News she regretted that the main opposition to the Brexit white paper was coming from within the Conservative party from her parliamentary colleagues.
She said she feared that the white paper could be “fatally undermined” if Brexiteers continued to make moves of the kind seen on Monday in which they tabled an amendment, agreed by ministers, making it illegal for Britain to collect EU tariffs at its borders unless Brussels agrees to act on a reciprocal basis.
Number 10 later insisted the amendments were consistent with the white paper.
Behind the scenes, leaders of the big aerospace and defence contractors are expressing concern about the uncertainty surrounding the UK’s trading relationship with the EU, although publicly all have expressed an ongoing commitment to the UK post Brexit.
The sector employs more than 123,000 people directly, mainly in highly-paid, skilled roles, while suppliers to the sector employ many thousands more.
There has also been a positive reaction to the announcements made at the airshow by ministers on Monday, particularly plans to build UK space ports.
Also welcomed was the UK’s commitment to a new jet fighter, the Tempest, part of the government’s planned £2bn investment in the Future Combat Air Strategy.
Contractors on the project include BAE systems, Rolls-Royce, MBDA UK and Leonardo UK, the Italian-owned contractor that owns helicopter manufacturer AgustaWestland.
But Ms Fairbairn warned: “The Combat Air Strategy…talks a lot about value for money and rightly so. But nowhere does the government have a common definition of what ‘value for money’ means in government procurement.”
Among the business people here, there are plenty of representatives from India, a country of growing importance to civil and military contractors alike.
The Indian carrier Vistera confirmed an order for 13 A320neos from Airbus, while the same manufacturer also confirmed an order from Sichuan Airlines of China for 10 A350-900s.
Boeing – which, with Airbus, accounted for the majority of new orders announced so far – confirmed orders with United Airlines and Qatar Airways among others.