The case for British shipping is cutting through the fog of Brexit

UK prime minister Theresa May used to intone that Brexit meant Brexit in the wake of the 2016 referendum. Now we know Brexit means shipping

London was the epicentre of a metaphorical hurricane this week: the high winds of optimism.

This was not the physical weather system that has just smashed so unfortunately and damagingly into Texas and Florida.

This was a rising tide of maritime enthusiasm with politicians and industry figures at the London International Shipping Week 2017.

The Baltic Exchange gave the occasion some tangible market support with the Baltic Dry Index (BDI) hitting a near three-year high.

We needed some feel-good factor in the UK capital of all places.

The whole divisive Brexit debate has felt like a new London fog that has descended and spread gloom.

That cloud lifted this week — even if temporarily — as a procession of maritime policymakers and industry players talked about the positive way ahead.

There were even signs of cultural creativity to boost the occasion. Three cheers for whoever came up with the idea that the Exmouth Shanty Men (what no women?) should entertain commuters going through Bank underground station from 7am to 10am one morning.

A colourful and memorable way to stick London shipping into the hearts as well as minds of city workers and dwellers. Some 73,000 people supposedly would have heard those plucky singers sponsored by Associated British Ports and supported by the mayor’s office.

But the meaty business was being carried on in different venues around the capital city — not least Number 10 Downing Street where industry figures and politicians gathered.

Prime minister Theresa May used to intone in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum that Brexit meant Brexit. She was trying clumsily to get over the message that there was no turning back. It also hid the fact that Britain had little in the way of a future game plan as almost nobody (including arch-Brexiteers) believed there would be a majority in favour of leaving the European Union (EU).

Now we can say that Brexit means shipping. I have long argued (even as a strong EU remain advocate) that one of the advantages of a massive Brexit upheaval was that it would create a vacuum that new forces — including the maritime world — could fill. And I believe this is happening.

Brexiteers need some positive narratives and the British shipping industry and London International Shipping Week are doing a good job trying to provide them.

Liam Fox, the international trade secretary and arch-Brexiteer, is responding to this, as is John Hayes the shipping minister.

Forget about the over the top emotional bombast from Hayes about the Red Duster (colloquialism for the British maritime flag) ruling the waves again.

But do listen to the genuine enthusiasm from Hayes about the Maritime Growth Study, doubling the size of the UK fleet and promising to do what he can to “increase the number of ships brokered here, insured here and sailing from here”.

0a9c9a387a75d24fa90972d8d77fa489 Theresa May, UK prime minister, as she leaves number 10 Downing Street where industry figures and politicians gathered to outline the future of British shipping  Photo: Bloomberg

Equally there have been strong words from ministers on supporting local apprentice schemes in the maritime world and commitments to reinvigorate local shipbuilding.

Clearly all of that has to be tempered against the realities of the day, not least the huge uncertainties around Britain’s exit terms from the EU. There is no clarity on issues such as customs arrangements that could yet paralyse Dover and other ferry ports, financial 'passporting' for maritime banks, the status of overseas employees or the position of London Greek and other non-doms.

The good thing is that shipping is being heard afresh and this is not just good for the UK but further afield.

It comes at a time when the wider shipping recession is lifting. The BDI has hit 1,355 points partly on the back of a surge in demand for iron ore and coal shipments onboard capesize bulkers.

But there is also renewed optimism among many tanker and liner operators amid a slowing of new tonnage capacity coming into the market. Few think that a new boom lies ahead but things are definitely better globally and in London.

Shipping has for too long been a Cinderella of the British industrial and services sector. It (she) has been diligently sweeping the hearth but the contribution has been overlooked by a series of Prince Charmings in Number 10. That period is over for now. The challenge is to make sure shipping presses home its advantages now that it has been given its chance on a very public ballroom floor.

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