U.K. election: Business leaders react as Brexit talks hang in the balance

Companies are calling on U.K. political leaders to keep businesses in focus after Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives lost ground in Thursday’s election, a surprise result that comes as British officials prepare for upcoming talks on breaking away from the European Union.

Before the historic Brexit vote last year, some companies expressed concerns over the uncertainty of trade negotiations that would follow. Once voters chose to leave the EU, business leaders urged the U.K. and other European nations in particular to maintain unfettered trade and provide long-term certainty for the economy. Currently, trade between EU nations exists without any tariffs.

May called an early Parliamentary election in hopes of expanding the Conservative Party’s majority before Brexit negotiations start later this month. However, the Tories will now hold fewer seats. They are expected to work with smaller parties to form a majority, while May plans to stay on as prime minister.

“Business owners need to be reassured that the economy remains a key focus and is not forgotten amid the political infighting that’s surely set to come,” said the National Association of Commercial Finance Brokers, a trade group for U.K. brokers and lenders.

BritishAmerican Business, an organization of British firms and American companies that invest in the U.K., said “defining a new relationship” between the U.K. and EU will be “one of the greatest political and legislative challenges of our time.”

“Yesterday’s election has added to the uncertain business environment our Members operate in; it is therefore of the utmost importance that a new Government is formed as soon as possible,” said Jeffries Briginshaw, CEO of BritishAmerican Business. “Ensuring that Britain remains a top destination to live, work and invest can only be achieved with a strong, robust and innovative economy that must include a positive vision for the U.K.’s future relationship with the European Union.”

U.S. companies made a record $48 billion worth of foreign direct investment into the U.K. last year, according to the group.

U.K.-based manufacturers are keeping a close eye on political developments, warning of negative consequences if the U.K. and EU can’t come to terms on a tax-free trade deal.

“We respect the results of the British electorate and look forward to working with the new government as it takes shape,” Aston Martin said in a statement. “We cannot stress strongly enough the need for rapid and decisive policy direction to ensure that business can continue to invest for the long term growth and ensure the global competitiveness of the British economy.”

The British luxury automaker added that “clarity over our relationship with Europe must be established quickly together with the wider reassurance to our key trading partners that Britain remains a dynamic and thriving business environment”.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), a trade group representing automakers and suppliers and in the U.K., called on the nation’s government to work with the industry on business policies.

“It’s important a government is established as quickly as possible to provide political and economic stability,” SMMT CEO Mike Hawes said. “UK Automotive is vitally important to the UK economy and jobs across the country and now more than ever we need strong engagement by government with the industry, both on the domestic agenda and in European negotiations, to secure future growth and investment in our sector.”