IT was difficult to stifle an involuntary laugh when hearing Theresa May declare 2018 could be a year of “renewed confidence and pride” in the UK.

It is all very well taking an optimistic view at the start of a new year. However, the Prime Minister’s New Year message was so far from reality that it would have been far better suited to a side-splitting political satire. That said, maybe it would have been just too far-fetched.

It is important to emphasise the suppressed involuntary laugh was triggered by sheer amazement at the Alice in Wonderland-type pronouncements relating to leaving the European Union that continue to emanate from the Conservative Government. There was nothing remotely amusing in Mrs May’s address. And there is nothing funny about the unfolding UK economic situation.

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Today, a survey from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) in Scotland shows confidence among member firms plunging even further to a near-record-low in the latest quarter.

The reasons for this further drop in confidence are by now well known, surely even by the Conservatives.

The Brexit vote has created huge uncertainty for businesses and households. The Conservatives are flailing about – with their scarily wild swings compounding the inevitably huge uncertainty of Brexit.

Meanwhile, the surge in inflation arising from sterling’s post-Brexit vote tumble has triggered a renewed fall in real pay for UK households.

Many small businesses are not exporters, but that does not protect them from the Brexit shambles.

Households now have less money to spend on these firms’ goods and services. And small firms are also being hit by the decisions of many businesses, of all sizes, to rein in investment and other spending because of the massive economic uncertainty created by Brexit.

Yet Mrs May seems entirely unperturbed by the economic backdrop. She must be aware of it.

Growth slowed sharply last year as the reality of Brexit manifested itself. But you might not have got that from Mrs May’s New Year message.

It was also interesting to hear the Prime Minister describe the National Health Service as “precious” in her address. Particularly so given the current troubles of the NHS in England – which is cancelling many thousands of operations – following years of Conservative austerity.

In the context of the economy and Brexit, Mrs May said: “I believe 2018 can be a year of renewed confidence and pride in our country – a year in which we continue to make good progress towards a successful Brexit deal, an economy that’s fit for the future, and a stronger and fairer society for everyone.”

The savage welfare cuts under the Conservatives, as well as dampening the economy by depressing aggregate demand for years now, have certainly not produced a fairer society. Quite the opposite.

As well as being at odds with the underlying UK economic and social reality, Mrs May’s comments are also in stark contrast to those from the top brass of the FSB.

Andy Willox, FSB Scottish policy convenor, said: “The final months of last year saw Scottish and UK small business confidence slip to near-record-lows. Last year’s bruising trading conditions are most likely to blame, compounded with concerns regarding Brexit and worries about local economies.”

The FSB survey found a large number of UK entrepreneurs are looking to exit their businesses rather than deal with the huge challenges facing them. These entrepreneurs are generally a resilient bunch.

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the FSB, said: “As we progress to stage [two] of Brexit talks, negotiations with the EU27 are set to continue dominating the political agenda. While the swift agreement of a transitional arrangement and an ambitious free trade agreement with the EU are absolutely critical, it’s spiralling costs, weak growth and flagging consumer demand at home that are front of mind for small firms day to day. It’s troubling to see a record number of entrepreneurs seeking an exit as these challenges prove too much for many.”

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, also struck a very different tone on the economy to the Prime Minister in a year-end letter to the business organisation’s members.

Ms Fairbairn declared: “Certainty, predictability and calmer politics were all on our Christmas wish-list for 2017, but it was not to be. The year soon turned into a rollercoaster ride, full of jaw-dropping twists and turns from the start.”

She added: “Firms have responded with resilience but there’s no doubt that the impact of uncertainty has taken its toll.”

Ms Fairbairn observed that, while the global economy “enjoyed a boom”, the UK economy had “shifted down a gear”, noting 2017 growth was expected to have been only about 1.5 per cent.

She said: “We know from members that investment was postponed and in some cases halted.”

While noting manufacturers’ order books had ended the year in good shape, with CBI surveys having signalled a boost to exports from the pound’s woes, Ms Fairbairn added: “Inflation of three per cent has bitten on living standards and affected retailers and other consumer firms.”

And she warned: “Even harder work lies ahead. To keep jobs and investment in the UK, binding Brexit transition terms by the end of the first quarter need to be accompanied by progress on a framework for a final deal that delivers barrier-free trade with the EU.”

She called for “clarity and certainty” from politicians, “not a different opinion every day”.

While it is early days, Mrs May’s “successful Brexit deal” phrase must from an economic perspective surely put her in with a reasonable claim for 2018's biggest contradiction in terms. Then again, the most Brexit-minded of her Cabinet colleagues could, given their recent track record, mount a serious challenge for this “accolade” as the year progresses.