Business has no divine rights, but Government must remember who pays the bills

Andy Silvester
The Prime Minster Of the United Kingdom Theresa May Signs Article 50
The PM signs her Article 50 letter - she must engage business to make Brexit a success (Source: Getty)

If there’s a week to go until an election, but a gaggle of senior business leaders haven’t sent an open letter warning of plague, apocalypse and pestilence if one side or another wins, is the election really happening?

That’s the question that seems to be on the mind of some of the commentariat as we approach the last white-hot days of election fever. The Today programme asked this morning why big business had been ‘shunned’ from this election; newspaper articles have spoken of business being ‘shut out’ by No.10.

It is true that compared with the election of 2015 – in which David Cameron and George Osborne managed to prove the pollsters wrong by hammering the Labour Party, day after day, on the economy – we haven’t heard much about the deficit, the public finances or the need to ‘pay down the debt’. Indeed at times it has seemed a bit of a jam today, jam tomorrow election.

But while the deficit has been as absent in the campaign as it was in Ed Miliband’s infamous Conference speech, that doesn’t mean business as a whole has been. Indeed, despite some of the whispered complaints about a lack of access, businesses can hardly argue they’ve been ignored by politicians since the vote to leave the European Union.

There’s no question that Theresa May runs a different Government from her predecessor. The sit-downs with a select group of CEOs are a thing of the past. But while the meet and greets with the FTSE might have stopped, the Prime Minister has not taken her eye off the affairs of big companies, bringing a new level of attention to how boards operate. Some in the City are wary, but high standards of corporate governance are a competitive advantage of UK-listed firms, and business leaders need to meet May halfway on this one.

Engagement also doesn’t just come from No10. The Business Secretary, the Chancellor, and Downing Street officials have been regularly meeting representatives of small- and medium-sized businesses. Greg Clark and other BEIS Ministers have been on more regional trips than you can shake a stick at. And while those businesses haven’t got everything they’ve wanted, clearly their voice has been heard; a promised review of business rates and a contingency fund for those small businesses hit hardest, investment in local transport as well as the grand projets, and memorably the rethink on National Insurance increases. While there are real concerns about the negative knock-on effects for competition and investment, you can bet some small businesses will be glad of a (sort-of) energy cap.

Labour have done their best with business, but corporation tax hike hasn't gone down well (Source: Getty)

Of course, if the FTSE feels deprived of access, perhaps they can console themselves with the fact the PM has stuck to the commitment to reduce corporation tax to 17 per cent, a commitment that could have been conveniently explained away by Brexit, global headwinds and the vacated centre ground.

And the Labour Party, too, have listened. A host of business groups were invited in to the opposition’s headquarters on Victoria Street for a marathon session just a month before the election on their manifesto. Unsurprisingly there were areas of disagreement – but look at the focus on education for the next generation, upskilling, and an infrastructure splurge and you can see business’ fingerprints all over it. The fact they’ve asked businesses and the people that founded them is rather more frustrating.

But for the talk of small and large businesses, the issue that unites just about all in the business community is immigration. Our post-Brexit immigration system must be an open one, allowing the firms of today to access skilled talent from abroad, ensuring the jobs of tomorrow are there as we educate those at home. More to the point, we need to get rid of the ugly tone of the debate.

Business leaders have made their voices heard; but neither of the two main parties appear to be listening. And amidst the white heat of an election perhaps that isn’t surprising; perhaps, too, the business community must start making our arguments to the country not just Whitehall. We can’t blame politicians for following public sentiment, and no amount of evidence that skilled workers are needed and that immigration doesn’t reduce wages appears to have convinced voters.

Entrepreneurs, founders and the leaders of Britain’s businesses have no divine right to feed in to Government policy, but nor should Government forget who pays the bills. After the election, it’s up to business to remake the case that the best way to build a prosperous country is to unleash the forces of free enterprise. That means constructive dialogue – we hope it continues.

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