Wed. Dec 1st, 2021

“Peppa Pig World is very much my kind of place,” Boris Johnson said during one of many deviations in his rambling and chambolic speech to the CBI. The deeply frivolous action was a reminder, if one was needed, that while Britain’s prime minister may have enjoyed his time at the children’s theme park, the annual conference of the country’s largest business lobby group is by no means Johnson’s preferred venue. The episode has undermines his authority, already shaky after sleaze allegations. The speech also symbolized a lack of interest in and respect for businesses going to the top of the government. For the sake of Britain’s prosperity, and Johnson’s own agenda, that needs to change.

Tense relationships with large businesses, and especially the CBI, is in part a legacy of Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum. Most of the large companies that the lobby group tends to represent wanted to stay in the trading bloc. Consequently, many of those in Johnson’s government and who emerged from the Leave campaign see large corporations as just another extension of a hidden, bureaucratic mentality that is only too eager to thwart any real change. The explosive word Johnson allegedly aimed at business was particularly aimed at the CBI pressure group.

Relations improved as the departure from the EU, apart from problems with Northern Ireland trade, was largely completed. Passions faded and the CBI changed its leadership and installed the well-connected and effective Tony Danker. The business group found common ground on the government’s skills agenda and desire to “make” the regions of the UK. Indeed, this week’s annual conference was held online, but with speakers at eight different venues across the country, doing their part to spread the word economic activity wider.

More needs to be done. The government, in turn, needs to get better with outreach. There was a sharp change in the Conservative party’s attitude towards business, first among Theresa May’s Premiership and now under the present incumbent. While Johnson has a certain affinity for the exciting stereotype of entrepreneurs and disruptors, the more serious management world of larger corporations leaves him cold. The Business Action Board, set up last year by one of Johnson’s friends, tried to reconnect business and government, but was unable to make significant progress.

The CBI itself must avoid falling into irrelevance. Common ground on “leveling” and “skills” is easy to find because the concrete policy agenda is so vague. With corporate taxes and employers’ national insurance rising next year, businesses need a powerful voice to keep the country competitive, rather than a pro-government booster. The CBI should consider devoting more of its resources to truly rigorous analysis, to explore how to make equality a reality. It would also give it a relevance that does not depend on access to ministers. Coordinating with groups representing smaller businesses will also help.

Unlike previous conservative administrations, it is difficult to find much business experience in Johnson’s cabinet, which helps explain the lack of respect. In fact, at his party conference, Johnson proposed labor shortages as something that would force businesses to pay higher wages. For now – in a growing economy with high employment – it could be a vote-winner to see business as another group of elites who need to get a commute. But it is short-sighted. Confronted with rising prices, supply chain problems and daring reform promises he is expected to keep, the prime minister will soon find that difficult times require a more serious approach.

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