Nick King: Johnson’s Reset. The Government needs business if it’s to build back better.

22 Nov

Nick King is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies

Much has been written in the last week, on this site and beyond, about what a Government ‘reset’ might look like, following Dom Cummings and Lee Cain’s departure from Number 10. Broadly. those perspectives have focused on what might be termed ‘the three Ps’ of positioning, people and policy.

In terms of positioning it has been argued that Number 10 needs to take a less confrontational approach – whether that is towards the media, public institutions or, indeed, Conservative backbenchers.

On people, the part played by the indomitable Carrie Symonds and the increasing importance of Allegra Stratton has been acknowledged, but the search continues for the right Chief of Staff to promote and protect Boris Johnson’s own interests.

The issue of policy is perhaps the least clear cut, with competing views espoused as to whether or not the Government can be the party of Workington as well as the party of Notting Hill. My own view is it can and it must.

But there is a final P which needs to be thrown into the mix – not as a fourth horseman, but as a corollary of the three Ps – and that is the private sector.

The fact is that British business is at a low ebb right now, in terms of performance, confidence and its relationship with Government. Covid-19 is the most obvious explanatory factor for those first two issues – forcing millions of businesses up and down the country to close will take the wind out of their sails however generous the set of support packages provided. But introducing those measures only serves to make the job of working constructively with British business all the more important for government. On this task, it has been found wanting.

Across industries, sectors and different parts of the country, there has been consternation and confusion as different restrictions have been introduced, without any (published) economic analysis of the potential impacts or of the evidence base upon which these decisions have been made.

As we approach December 3rd, businesses remain in the dark about whether or not they might be able to reopen, despite the long lead times needed for various parts of the hospitality sector in particular (a sector whose import will perhaps never be as keenly felt as it will be in December 2020).

That businesses don’t feel like the Government supports them is hardly new news, however. Successive polls commissioned by my think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, has shown that a clear majority of small businesses don’t think that the Government is on their side. Indeed, the Government’s own survey data shows that only a quarter of businesses think government understands business well enough to regulate it. But in the context of a national economic shutdown, this is simply not good enough.

This is not to say there aren’t people around Government who understand business, or who are keen to support it. Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma, their political teams and Departments are obviously on businesses’ side, as is Ed Lister and Alex Hickman’s business relations team in Number 10. But the disregard of other influential figures towards business has meant that much of the private sector has failed to get a proper hearing throughout 2020.

The anticipated ‘reset’ is an opportunity for the Johnson administration to put that right. Which duly brings us back to our three Ps.

On positioning, the Government needs to be unapologetically pro-business, free enterprise and open markets. The Conservative Party must defend the role of enterprise and the private sector and be resolutely on the side of the millions of small business owners up and down the country. This is important ground both ideologically and politically – and ground which the Conservative Party is in danger of ceding if it isn’t more full-voiced in its support for business.

In terms of people, Andrew Griffith and Neil O’Brien’s recent appointments are welcome, and will help emphasise the role of business, but change is needed in Number 10 itself. A Chief of Staff with extensive private sector experience would be welcome but, failing that, an understanding and sympathetic attitude towards enterprise should be regarded as a sine qua non. Just as important is for Number 10 to have a strong and expert voice for business sitting within its policy unit. That there has not been a business policy function sitting within the policy unit since David Cameron was Prime Minister is extraordinary – the existing business relations team needs to be strengthened and given a proper policy role.

Which brings us onto the final P of policy, which is the most important of ‘the three Ps’. Positioning and people are all well and good, but fine words doth butter no parsnips, as they say – so Johnson needs to ensure his Government is putting business front and centre as he looks to build back better.

Post-pandemic, securing growth is the only game in town. Without that there is no hope of new jobs, greater opportunities or improved living standards – whether in Workington or Notting Hill. And none of this can be achieved without unleashing the awesome and dynamic power of the private sector.

An important starting point would be to curtail the steadily increasing regulatory burden on business. Each measure, taken on its own merits, seems important and its impact trivial to business. But the corrosive, drip-drip effect takes its toll and as growth flatlines and productivity stagnates, politicians stand with their hands on their hips, double teapoting, wondering why.

Take the recent HFSS (foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt) consultation for example – likely to cost British industry hundreds of millions of pounds. No doubt full of noble intent, but hardly what the economic doctor might order as we look to recover post-pandemic.

More worrying still are the suggestions that we will increase both the rates and the scope of business and enterprise taxes in 2022. This is no way to stimulate and incentivise the businesses who are our only way out of the economic morass in which we find ourselves. Rather than clipping its wings, the Government should provide the wind to help business soar.

Speaking of wind power, the vital role of the private sector was clear in the Prime Minister’s 10 point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. But the truth is that few of his priorities can be achieved without the business community. Levelling up? It requires business investment and private sector jobs in the North and the Midlands. Net zero? Industry needs to transition and innovate our way towards it. Protect the Union? Champion our British businesses and demonstrate our reliance on the free flow of goods and access to important markets both north and south of the border. Global Britain? Remain open to inward investors and get more companies exporting.

Pfizer, BioNTech and other companies have all too ably demonstrated just why we need the private sector recently – it’s the key to solving so many of our problems. Which is why Boris Johnson needs to put it front and centre through his reset exercise.

A reformed Number Ten must get on the front foot with business relations and business policy. It needs to articulate a clear vision of our post-Brexit future, rooted in entrepreneurship, investing in success, focused on innovation, with a skilled workforce, trading with the world and built off the back of our brilliant SMEs. That’s a reset worth waiting for.