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Car makers 'promised' clarity on Brexit by October

What are we to make of the car industry's latest "warning" to the government?

On Tuesday morning, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said uncertainty about the UK's future trading relationship with the EU is "thwarting" investment and that anything less than "continued membership of the customs union" and "maintenance of the benefits the single market delivers" will cost jobs in an industry that employs one million people in Britain.

You've heard this song before, although it's being sung with some urgency.

The carefully-worded press release speaks of "growing frustration in global boardrooms" at the slow progress of Brexit negotiations.

"Time is running out," the SMMT warns, but note: there's no ultimatum similar to the one Airbus set last Friday.

To-date, only BMW has set a deadline for the government to provide clarity.

The other large volume manufacturers - Jaguar Land Rover, Vauxhall, Nissan, Toyota, Honda and Ford - share BMW's concerns but appear to be keeping quiet for now.

So far, only BMW has sounded warning signs over the outcome of Brexit. Credit: PA

The chief executives I have spoken to worry that the government is weak and the Cabinet deeply divided about the sort of trading relationship with the EU they want to secure.

However, most also seem hopeful that they will get what they want - that Britain is heading for the softest of possible Brexits.

Indeed, some claim to have been given personal reassurances by ministers.

"We've been told we'll get clarity by the end of October," the head of one car-maker told me.

"We're taking that as a promise. We're all concerned about the politics, of course, but the sensible people in government seem to be winning."

The "sensible" ministers in this case are the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Chancellor, Philip Hammond.

Chancellor Philip Hammond has been pushing for a softer Brexit. Credit: PA

"We want the status quo. We're not going to get it but we're being told we'll get something pretty close," another chief executive told me.

"No deal is not an option, despite the posturing. Such an outcome would severely shrink the industry."

So while BMW is sounding the horn, most car-makers seem confident that the political direction of travel, while slow, is in the direction they want.

They believe they have secured a private deadline from the government they are happy with.

The public statement today is all about focusing minds ahead of the cabinet meeting at the prime minister's country home in Chequers early next month.

They believe Theresa May is about to abandon more of the objectives for Brexit that she set out in January last year - that red lines are about to disappear. Their confidence may be misplaced.