Ricky Moore, who stages the Hypnotist Laughter Show at comedy clubs in northern England, took a phone call a few weeks ago that turned out to be an unusual booking.
He was asked if he’d be willing to sign a letter urging Britons to quit the European Union. He agreed, even though he didn’t know who exactly was calling him. It was Leave.eu, the anti-EU lobby group that was assembling a list of 200 small business owners backing what’s become known as “Brexit.”
It’s the battle to draw support from British businesses before the June 23 referendum that led to the 47-year-old Newcastle hypnotist, along with a number of cab firms, funeral homes and even the odd chef. While the caliber of the list may be easy to scorn, it underscored the fault line emerging between big and small companies that’s getting harder to dismiss as the campaign heats up.
“A taxi driver working on his own is a one-man entrepreneur,” said Richard Tice, the co-chair of Leave.eu who helped compile the list. “These one-, two-, five-man bands are what make up U.K. businesses. The majority of businesses we cold call are not in favor of the EU.”
Surveys show that small firms are more likely than large companies to believe leaving the EU would be a good thing.
In January, a poll of 500 small-business owners by YouGov Plc found that 42 percent wanted the U.K. to leave. The pro-EU Confederation of British Industry said last week 80 percent of its members backed its stance in a ComRes survey. Support dropped to 71 percent among small and medium-sized businesses. “The vast majority of U.K. businesses don’t trade with Europe but they have to suffer the one-size-fits-all bureaucracy, which doesn’t make them more efficient,” said Luke Johnson, the entrepreneur who expanded the Pizza Express chain and now owns Gail’s, a string of artisan bakeries across London.
Bigger companies are more likely to rely on international trade and worry about the impact of losing access to the EU’s single market of 500 million
Their concerns were highlighted when leaders of about a third of FTSE-100 companies signed a letter last month organized by the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign warning voters that a vote to leave could threaten jobs and put the economy at risk.
Less than three weeks later, Leave.eu, which is backed by U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, donor Arron Banks, published its 200 signatories in the Telegraph newspaper.
Large businesses account for less than half of private employment in the U.K. Of the 5.4 million businesses operating in the U.K., 99% are small and medium-sized businesses and many don’t look beyond national borders.
One group of small-business owners that do rely on trade with Europe — and £3 billion in subsidies and guarantees, or roughly half the money Britain gets from the EU — are farmers.
In West Sussex, 50 miles south of London, Richard Goring is worried about the potential consequences. His family has owned and managed the 6,000-acre Wiston farming estate since 1743 and now farms cattle, poultry, and wheat.
“If we leave Europe, the farming community will be seriously concerned,” he said. Without EU aid, 70 percent of British farms could be pushed to the brink of insolvency, threatening the country’s food security, he added.
Some small businesses that don’t trade with the EU are also concerned about the fallout of a vote to leave.
Charlie Mullins is the owner of Pimlico Plumbers, which was founded in 1979 and employs 350 people. He said his firm doesn’t rely on Europe for sales or workers, but his clients could be negatively impacted by a “Brexit.”
“If things become worse for them, it would impact us,” he said. “We’ve got a pretty good deal at the moment. I just don’t want things to take a step back.”
Others have yet to decide one way or another, just like the population as a whole. Polls show enough people yet to make up their mind could sway the vote either way.