terça-feira, 1 de novembro de 2016
Theresa May’s secret business love affair
Theresa May’s secret business love affair
Business may find more to like in the UK prime minister’s actions than in her words.
By TOM MCTAGUE 11/2/16, 5:33 AM CET
LONDON – Theresa May has finally agreed to meet Britain’s leading big business body, after months of hostile rhetoric and cold-shouldering sparked widespread industry alarm.
The U.K. prime minister will hold clear-the-air talks with the head of the Confederation of British Industry Carolyn Fairbairn in Downing Street later this month, senior business and government sources confirmed.
The CBI’s mounting frustration with Number 10 became public last month when Fairbairn, its director general, publicly accused the prime minister of “closing the door” on Britain’s open economy in an interview with the Times.
The intervention gave voice to broad industry concern that the new prime minister was proving far less business friendly than her predecessor David Cameron.
May entered Downing Street with a promise to be guided “not by the interests of the privileged few” but by the concerns of ordinary workers. A few months later, her hardline rhetoric on immigration at the Conservative Party conference, which suggested the government was headed for a hard-Brexit outside the European single market, sparked boardroom concern that 30 years of liberal economic consensus was coming to an end.
It was also in stark contrast to the vision laid out by the leading Brexiteers during the referendum campaign, which promised to turn Britain into a free-market dynamo outside the EU.
Fairburn’s public attack on May infuriated Number 10, said one senior Tory source with close connections to Downing Street. “She took a decision to go nuclear,” the source said, before warning the prime minister’s team continues to view Fairbairn’s close connection to George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, with suspicion.
Industry insiders privately acknowledge the interview was “intentional and calculated” but insist it was necessary to check what they saw as Number 10’s hostile rhetoric. “It was the kick up the arse they needed,” one well-placed big business lobbyist said on condition of anonymity.
Within a week, the CBI secured a meeting with the prime minister, and talks with her joint chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were also hastily arranged.
“Things have been tougher, there’s no doubt,” the big business lobbyist said. “There isn’t the warmth there that we’re used to.”
The episode lifts the lid on the fractious, uneasy relationship that has developed between business and the new Conservative government. After Cameron’s cosy embrace, May’s cold detachment has come as a shock to the system.
More Cameron than Cameron
On closer inspection, however, it is hard to argue that May’s government offers a sharp break from the pro-business agenda of Cameron and Osborne.
Emboldened by soaring opinion polls and the prospect of working class voters abandoning the Labour Party and U.K. Independence Party, which are both in disarray, it is clearly in May’s electoral interests to pursue a “pro-workers” agenda.
But, in practice rather than in rhetoric, May is already showing signs of being even more friendly to business interests than the previous regime.
One of the government’s first acts was to water down Cameron’s childhood obesity strategy, which was opposed by much of the food and drink industry.
Last week the government also sneaked out changes to the apprenticeship levy on business to answer some industry concerns, while it was reported in the Financial Times that ministers were looking at ways to dilute the PM’s pledge to put workers on company boards.
After a short delay, May also signed off a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point and broke years of political deadlock to back Heathrow’s extension. And while it is the PM that has been criticized by business, it was Cameron and Osborne who introduced the increased “living wage” and, of course, agreed to hold the EU referendum in the first place.
“Theresa doesn’t see many people – she doesn’t want to spend her evenings hobnobbing.” – Government source
May is certainly not an instinctive economic liberal like Cameron and Osborne, who used their pro-business credentials as a wedge to differentiate the Tories from Labour. But the prime minister isn’t an economic populist, either, having spent her early career at the Bank of England.
In May’s inner circle there is also far more real-world business experience than in Cameron’s, including the Chancellor Philip Hammond, a self-made millionaire.
City of London veteran John Godfrey, who has spent 20 years in the Square Mile including almost a decade at Legal & General, was quickly brought across to head up Downing Street’s policy unit.
Katie Perrior, the director of communication, was also persuaded to leave her job running a successful PR firm. In contrast, Craig Oliver, Cameron’s spin chief, was hired from the BBC.
May has also created a business outreach team at the heart of Number 10, headed up by former Bell Pottinger PR executive and business lobbyist James McLoughlin, the son of Conservative Party chairman Patrick McLoughlin. The outreach unit is strongly backed by Fiona Hill, one of May’s joint chiefs of staff. It is tasked with regularly consulting leading industry figures.
Business Secretary Greg Clark and Brexit Secretary David Davis have also been meeting business groups on a regular basis. Clark has even gone as far as to set up formal, weekly meetings with the CBI and other lobbying groups.
The Federation of Small Businesses, unlike the CBI, has had regular dialogue with Number 10 since May took office. Senior government sources said she had also arranged two business dinners in Downing Street, hosted financial services firms and investors in New York and held one-to-one meetings with global CEOs in Number 10.
“Theresa doesn’t see many people – she doesn’t want to spend her evenings hobnobbing. But the City doesn’t have much to complain about,” said one senior government source.
A Downing Street source added: “We have constant, positive engagement with the business community who, like us, want to grasp the opportunities that Brexit provides. Whether it’s selling UK plc in India, attracting investment from Nissan or taking a decision on Heathrow, where politicians have frustrated businesses for decades, we’re getting on with the job and ensuring the UK is a competitive place to set up and run a business.”
That said, perceptions matter – particularly for the City of London.
The U.K.’s financial services sector employs 2.2 million and generates £66 billion in tax revenues for the Treasury each year. Its ability to continue attracting foreign investment is key to its success.
Fairbairn, the director general, said it was the government’s “messages” that were alarming.
“It’s very clear from conversations we are having that the world is watching,” she said. “International investors are watching. Companies here are watching. And they are reading a lot into the signals of this government about how committed they are to creating a strong economy.”
The warning struck a chord.
“It’s certainly the most anti-business Tory government in a long, long while.” – Lobbyist
One financial services lobbyist in the City of London said it was “absolutely true” that the government’s anti-business rhetoric was damaging to U.K.’s international reputation.
A speech by Amber Rudd, the home secretary, in which she said UK businesses hire too many immigrants, in particular, didn’t go down well, the lobbyist said, describing it as “a shock to a lot of businesses.”
“It was also very noticeable how badly it went down in Europe,” he said. “The focus seems to be on immigration and not access to the markets — security over prosperity.
“In the City of London, there is concern. It’s certainly the most anti-business Tory government in a long, long while.”
But whatever tone the prime minister takes, Number 10 is aware that the central demand of business – to stay in the European Union – cannot be delivered.
Nor can May adequately offer industry the certainty is craves. While there is high-level awareness of the frustration caused by the “no running commentary” policy on Brexit, Number 10 is convinced it cannot achieve a good deal for the U.K any other way.
Yet, beyond Brexit, May is no radical.
The prime minister has stolen UKIP’s clothes on Brexit and Labour’s on workers’ rights. But underneath she remains a traditional Tory, running a traditional Tory government.