European commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Picture: AFP/JOHN THYS
European commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Picture: AFP/JOHN THYS

London — After more than three years of false starts, dead ends and recriminations, the UK is finally set to leave the EU on Friday night. Few of Brexit’s biggest backers plan to party.

“It’s a gentle thank you, not exuberance,” hedge fund manager Crispin Odey said. “The trouble is we have got some really hard negotiations this year. I think you really want to celebrate in a year’s time when you know the terms upon which we have left.”

The UK and the EU are already at odds, even before trade talks have formally started. Negotiations on issues from fishing rights to financial services are expected to be fraught. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned earlier in January that the UK’s access to the single market depends on how far the country agrees to abide by the bloc’s rules. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson sees Brexit as an opportunity to break away from EU regulations.

The difficulties ahead might explain why festivities will be muted for some well-known Brexit supporters. Peter Hargreaves — the finance tycoon who gave more than $4m to the Leave campaign — is hoping to be asleep well before the 11pm departure. Investor Jeremy Hosking is away on business. Even Tim Martin, the founder of pub chain JD Wetherspoon, isn’t planning an especially boozy night this Friday.

“I tend to ‘celebrate’ most nights of the week with a couple of pints of Abbot Ale, followed by one or two glasses of merlot,” Martin said by text on Tuesday. He said he’ll “follow Kipling’s mantra of treating triumph and disaster the same — I’ll stick to my normal routine.”

Despite the low-key festivities, the period since the vote has proved profitable for many of the country’s richest backers of Brexit.

Martin’s stake in his pub chain was worth about 250m when the referendum was held in June 2016. That’s since doubled. Odey’s main hedge fund rallied 11.4% in December on Johnson’s election victory (though that wasn’t enough to stop it slumping to its fourth annual loss in the past five years).

Britain’s two richest people, both prominent Brexiteers, have done even better. Industrialist Jim Ratcliffe has gained $10bn to take his net worth to almost $19bn, while James Dyson’s engineering fortune has grown $8bn to about $14bn, according to calculations by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Not that these gains reflect returns reaped from Britain, or its decision to leave. It’s more a sign of widening wealth inequality and how far the business empires of billionaires now extend beyond national boundaries and concerns, even those as all-consuming as Brexit.

Ratcliffe controls Ineos, a chemicals company whose production network involves 183 sites in 26 countries with revenue of about $60bn, according to its website. Vacuum-cleaner maker Dyson said in 2019 it was moving its headquarters to Singapore, having already shifted the majority of its production to the Southeast Asian city-state.

“Commerce in general has become more international and less tied to single sovereign state,” said Chris Kalin, chair of Henley & Partners Group, which helps the rich to relocate. “The management of wealth portfolios is no different.”

Uncertain prospects

While some in the City of London are celebrating Brexit, the financial hub’s prospects after Brexit are uncertain.

Most economists have forecast Brexit will harm Britain’s growth. Sterling has dropped 13% against the dollar since the referendum, while three years of political turmoil crimped business investment and buoyed demand for the safety of sovereign debt.

The cautious mood contrasts with the December general election, when financiers united in relief at the resounding defeat of the Labour party.

Some campaigners fear Britain’s exit will reverberate beyond its borders, harming developing countries. The Global Alliance for Tax Justice organised a walking tour of the City of London earlier in January where speakers warned that a UK financial sector freed from European regulations might facilitate abusive international tax practices.

Despite the potential upheaval, the divorce deal itself still hasn’t impressed some of Brexit’s most ardent backers.

“I haven’t really got what I wanted,” said Hargreaves, who has seen his fortune grow by $500m to $4.2bn since the vote even as he’s pledged £100m to a new charitable foundation. “I wanted a complete exit.”

That’s not to say the occasion will pass unmarked. While Wetherspoons boss Martin isn’t planning to cut loose, he’s named as a speaker at an evening event in Parliament Square organised by campaign group Leave Means Leave.

And his company is certainly hoping customers will celebrate — or commiserate — over a few drinks. The pub chain is marking Brexit by starting a “Let’s Stay Friends” promotion on Friday, which reduces the price of drinks including beer from Germany, vodka from France and whisky from Ireland.