Andrea Leadsom, the new business secretary, packed her first business roundtable meeting with pro-Brexit figures including Tim Martin of Wetherspoons and executives with links to anti-EU campaigns.
Mrs Leadsom, who was given the job last week, said afterwards that despite the “challenges” ahead, business leaders had been “optimistic” and “clear that none are insurmountable”.
But the guest list for the event at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy shows that Mrs Leadsom — a longstanding Brexiter — brought in executives sympathetic to her point of view for her first meeting with industry.
Those attending included Ken Daly, chief executive of JML — a company set up by John Mills, one of the most senior figures in the pro-Brexit Vote Leave campaign — and Gerald Mason, senior vice-president at Tate & Lyle Sugars, who runs a campaign called “Brexit Golden Opportunity” against EU subsidies for beet sugar.
Also there was Tom Crotty, director of Ineos, the chemicals company run by Brexit supporter Jim Ratcliffe, and Laing O’Rourke, the construction group that has previously said it would see no negative impact from leaving the EU.
Mr Daly said the meeting had been “very positive, very informative”, adding: “The general consensus was that Brexit is a great opportunity and businesses are reasonably well prepared.”
Scott Snaith, from 50cycles, said after the meeting: “I know our counterparts over in Europe are quite excited for Brexit.”
Mr Martin, an outspoken advocate for leaving the EU, describes the bloc as a “protectionist system” and gave £200,000 to Vote Leave in 2016. He described the meeting as positive and said the guest list might show a “possible rebalancing”.
He added there “is obviously a lot of plusses about Brexit and a no-deal Brexit that are lost in the polemic”, and said that “most companies said that they were 80 per cent there on a no-deal Brexit”.
Not all of the dozen business figures in attendance were outspoken pro-Brexit figures, however, with companies such as BAE Systems and GE also invited to give their views.
But Madeleine Moon, Labour MP for Bridgend — a supporter of Remain campaign group Best for Britain — said the meeting suggested the government was failing to listen to the wider concerns of business.
“Filling a room with politically partisan business leaders won’t do anything to persuade British companies that their future is secure,” she said.
“A no-deal Brexit would seriously affect business plans in the long and short-term. And as the CBI stated this week, there are a number of challenges that businesses can’t prepare for.”
Chuka Umunna, Liberal Democrat business spokesperson, said that “British business is being forced to engage in a massive exercise of damage limitation and no amount of sugar coating of meetings between the new business secretary and business leaders can hide that fact”.
Asked why Mrs Leadsom seemed to have invited so many pro-Brexit executives to her first roundtable, a spokesperson said: “This is the first in a series of meetings with business.”
On Thursday, the business secretary is meeting business lobbying groups such as the CBI, Institute of Directors, British Chambers of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses, which take a less relaxed approach to the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.
In a statement, Mrs Leadsom said she had urged the executives to “continue their positive approach to the future and to talk about the opportunities that lie ahead”, while reassuring them that the government stood behind their efforts.
“We are stepping up a gear and increasing the pace of our preparations as we get ready to leave the EU on 31 October,” she said. “While there are challenges, business leaders were optimistic and clear that none are insurmountable.”
Other figures at the meeting included Keith Anderson, chief executive of Scottish Power, who has played down the potential impact of Brexit on his company.
“No matter what happens with Brexit, there’s an awful lot that the UK government is in control of in terms of our energy policy, in terms of what we want to do about tackling climate change, air pollution, the future of transport,” he said earlier this year.
Boris Johnson has filled senior cabinet roles with Brexit-supporting MPs, and has made it clear that he is prepared to leave the EU without a deal unless changes are made to the withdrawal agreement.