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Was Nissan really going to stop UK production following Brexit?

TG’s Paul Horrell on the decision to keep building Qashqais in Sunderland

A week of chiseling for information by politicians and industrial correspondents, and still no-one is the wiser about the exact nature of the “support and assurances” Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn extracted from the UK Government to ensure next-generation Qashqai production stayed in Sunderland.

That’s almost certainly because no concrete assurances were given. I very much suspect the whole thing – on both the Carlos Ghosn and Theresa May sides – was little more than a piece of knockabout political theatre.

Car companies’ decisions as to where they build a car take years to make, and once they’re made they’re not usually announced for some time. Although one insider told me it wasn’t quite a done deal, Nissan will have, months ago, come down heavily on the side of building in Sunderland. The Brexit vote would have given Nissan a small wobble, rather than upended the decision.

Carlos Ghosn likes to make his opinions known. His candour means I enjoy interviewing him more than almost any other car-company boss.

Before the Brexit referendum he said: “If anything has to change, we [would] need to reconsider our strategy and our investments for the future.” But guess what, in the Sunderland region, people voted to leave anyway.

So after the vote, he said at the Paris show, “If I need to make an investment in the next few months and I can’t wait until the end of Brexit, then I have to make a deal with the UK government. If there are tax barriers being established on cars, you have to have a commitment for carmakers who export to Europe that there is some kind of compensation.”

But let’s face it, the Government is hardly going to give that sort of handout to one industry – effectively negating the tariffs – and not others.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement, after her meeting with Ghosn, gave the most non-committed sort of commitment possible. “This government is committed to creating and supporting the right conditions for the automotive industry to go from strength to strength in the UK, now and into the future,” she said. No Government ever says anything less. No Government ever says it doesn’t give a fig about a major industry and undertakes to carelessly let it wither away.

Sunderland is a good plant with good workers making good cars

Ghosn of course has previous. He frequently warned that if the UK didn’t join the single European currency, Sunderland’s position would be threatened. Britain never did. And yet he kept approving investments here, because it’s a good plant with good workers making good cars.

No car company will invest in such a huge plant – a plant that’s selling all the cars it can make – and then simply walk away from it. The Qashqai decision was as near inevitable as makes no difference. The threats were just Ghosn being Ghosn. By making them, he might have gotten some useful support. But absent the support, Sunderland remains the right place to build the next Qashqai and X-Trail.

That’s not how Toyota and Honda roll. As the other players in the UK in a similar position, they have kept their mouths firmly in the shut position. But I’ve been talking to people in the companies.

Toyota will soon announce the decision on where the next Auris is built. I’ll bet my shirt on it continuing at Burnaston in Derbyshire. But Toyota isn’t, in the lead-up to that announcement, making a song and dance about wanting Government help. And the announcement itself will be made quietly.

If our Europe exit makes life harder for the plant, Toyota’s two British plants will simply find new manufacturing efficiencies, just like they have always done. (Like Nissan Sunderland has always done, come to that.)

And like Honda will. Honda’s new Civic is being built in Swindon. But whereas Nissan shouted all that will-we-won’t-we jeopardy before the Qashqai decision, Honda made it with no fuss. Nissan has always been happy to have TV news crews filming politicians in the plant, while Honda keeps its plant door locked to photographers.

There will probably be some help for all these British car factories if it gets really sticky following Brexit. But it’s ridiculous to believe the Government was being exact about a compensation deal last week. Brexit is a long way off and – as the past months have shown – things can change rapidly and wholly unexpectedly.

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