“Peppa Pig world is very much my kind of place,” Boris Johnson said during one of many digressions in his rambling and shambolic speech to the CBI. The deeply unserious performance 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 biggest business lobby group is very much not Johnson’s preferred venue. The episode has undermined his authority, already shaky after sleaze allegations. The speech symbolised, too, a lack of interest in and respect towards business that goes to the very top of government. For the sake of Britain’s prosperity, and Johnson’s own agenda, that needs to change.
Strained relations with big business, and the CBI especially, are partly a legacy of Britain’s 2016 EU membership referendum. Most of the large companies the lobby group tends to represent wished to stay in the trading bloc. Consequently, many of those in Johnson’s government and who emerged from the Leave campaign see big corporations as just another extension of a hidebound, bureaucratic mentality that is all too eager to stymie any real change. The expletive Johnson is famously reported to have directed at business was aimed at the CBI pressure group in particular.
Relations have improved as the departure from the EU has, aside from problems with Northern Ireland trade, been largely settled. Passions have faded and the CBI has changed its leadership, installing the well-connected and effective Tony Danker. The business group has found common ground on the government’s skills agenda and desire to “level up” 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 its own part to spread economic activity more widely.
More needs to be done. The government, for its part, needs to get better at outreach. There has been a stark change in the Conservative party’s attitude to business, first under Theresa May’s premiership and now under the present incumbent. While Johnson has a certain affinity for the buccaneering stereotype of entrepreneurs and disrupters, the more earnest, managerial world of bigger corporations leaves him cold. The Business Action Council, set up by one of Johnson’s friends last year, attempted to reconnect business and government but has failed to make significant progress.
The CBI itself needs to avoid falling into irrelevancy. Common ground on “levelling up” and “skills” is easy to find because the concrete policy agenda is so vague. With corporation tax and employers’ national insurance set to rise next year, business needs a forceful voice for keeping the country competitive, rather than a pro-government cheerleader. The CBI should consider devoting more of its resources to genuinely rigorous analysis, examining how to make levelling up a reality. That would also give it a relevance that did not depend on access to ministers. Co-ordinating with groups that represent smaller businesses will help too.
Unlike past Conservative administrations, it is difficult to find much business experience at all in Johnson’s cabinet, helping to explain the lack of regard. Indeed, at his party conference Johnson pitched labour shortages as something that would force businesses to pay higher wages. For now — in a growing, high-employment economy — seeing business as another group of elites needing to be brought down a peg may be a vote winner. But that is short-sighted. Faced with rising prices, supply chain problems, and bold reform pledges that he is expected to fulfil, the prime minister will soon find that serious times require a more serious approach.