WITH the UK plunging headlong towards Brexit with seemingly little idea of whether it will have a working parachute to soften its landing, fears among businesses over the jettisoning of our European Union membership are at an all-time high.

Chief financial officers of major UK companies are now more negative about the effects of Brexit than at any time since the June 2016 referendum on EU membership, a survey published this week by accountancy firm Deloitte reveals.

CFOs overall see Brexit as the biggest risk to business, by far. They cite weak demand in the UK as the second-greatest risk. In third place in the table of risks to business we have greater protectionism in the US and a subsequent escalation of trade wars.

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Deloitte notes: “Brexit is seen by far as the biggest threat to business, and more so than at any time since the EU referendum in 2016.”

So it looks as if the UK Government’s “efforts” so far on the Brexit front are providing businesses with no reassurance that the damaging effects of leaving the EU will be mitigated. In short, it seems finance chiefs are not at all confident Mrs May and her Government will be able to fashion some kind of effective parachute to reduce the pain of the landing.

Talk has swirled in recent days about a deal being nearer again but this has been accompanied by seeming foot-stamping from the Democratic Unionist Party, which is providing the prop to the deeply divided Conservative Government. And it is crucial to remember that the Brexit damage will inevitably be huge even if there is a deal, given the UK Government has ruled out staying in the single market.

Weak demand in the UK, the second-top risk, is certainly not unconnected to Brexit. After all, the vote to leave the EU sent sterling plunging and inflation surging, which led to a renewed fall in real-terms pay for a long period. And real-terms household earnings remain under pressure, with employers’ Brexit worries making them even more reluctant than normal when it comes to awarding healthy pay rises.

Meanwhile, the huge uncertainty created by the Brexit vote has weighed very heavily on business investment over the near-28-month period since the referendum. CFOs’ entirely justified worries over the future and what Brexit will bring signal business investment will not be bouncing back any time soon.

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The third-greatest risk to business identified by CFOs is also connected to Brexit. At a time of intense worries over US protectionism and consequent trade wars, it would surely be better for the UK to be part of a huge and powerful bloc such as the EU rather than going it alone.

Deloitte’s survey found 79% of CFOs now expect Brexit to lead to a deterioration in the overall environment for business in the long term. CFOs have also become more pessimistic about the short-term effects of leaving. The proportions of finance chiefs who expect to reduce capital expenditure, merger and acquisition activity, and hiring, as a consequence of Brexit, are at their highest in more than two years.

What is more, revenue growth expectations among CFOs have tumbled to their lowest since the 2016 referendum. And finance chiefs have a sharper focus on cost-reduction now than at any time in the last nine years. CFOs’ risk appetite has fallen and remains “well below” its long-term average. All of this, surely, does not bode well for UK economic growth.

Meanwhile, 48% of CFOs reported an increase in recruitment difficulties in the third quarter, with only 1% citing a reduction and 51% observing an unchanged position. Given the troubles they are having already in finding staff, and the importance of workers from other EU countries to the UK economy, Brexit is the last thing that companies need as they try to prosper in a grim domestic climate.

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British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall warned that uncertainty over Brexit and a lack of bold moves to boost business at home were starting to bite, as his organisation published its latest quarterly survey this week.

The percentage of UK services companies attempting to recruit was at its lowest for 25 years in the third quarter. And, of the firms in the sector that did try to recruit, the proportion experiencing difficulties rose to its highest since the survey began in 1989.

Brexit also figured prominently this week when Royal Bank of Scotland published its latest PMI (Purchasing Managers’ Index) report for Scotland. This showed Scottish private sector growth slowed in September, following five consecutive months of acceleration. The overall rate of expansion was still robust but manufacturing activity fell.

Sebastian Burnside, chief economist at Royal Bank, highlighted uncertainties over international trade amid growing concerns over a no-deal Brexit and a continuing focus on US President Donald Trump’s policies.

Reflecting on the Scottish manufacturing sector contraction, he said: “[There are] two things I would call out there as potentially being of concern…You have Trump putting more tariffs on Chinese goods fairly recently...The other one, certainly from my conversations with clients, [is] more businesses are thinking harder [about] what a no-deal Brexit could mean. That makes for quite a messy picture if you are trading internationally, quite a challenging environment.”

It is no surprise there is no sign of light at the end of the Brexit tunnel. After all, it was clear from the outset that this was not a tunnel the UK should be entering, with xenophobia among the regrettable factors which forced the country down this road.

What is perhaps a little surprising is the absolute bloody-mindedness of arch-Brexiters in continuing to insist that we should carry on regardless into deeper economic gloom, even as evidence of reality piles up. This week’s business surveys feature common themes, none of them pleasant, about Brexit. And these surveys follow many similar reports.

This makes it all the more lamentable the UK Government continues to lack the leadership to even consider abandoning Brexit. It is not interested in going back to the people with whose “will” it has been so obsessed to see how many have had second thoughts now the chickens are coming home to roost. In the real world, as opposed to that of the Brexiters, it is the electorate at large, as well as businesses, who will have to pay the price of the Conservatives’ Brexit folly.