May and Corbyn woo business in the face of Brexit warnings

Prime minister tells CBI’s conference that she is determined to support British business

UK prime minister Theresa May speaking at the Confederation of British Industry annual conference in London on Monday. Photograph: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

UK prime minister Theresa May speaking at the Confederation of British Industry annual conference in London on Monday. Photograph: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

 

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn both struck a conciliatory tone towards corporate Britain at the CBI’s annual conference on Monday, as business leaders warned they needed certainty on a Brexit transition deal by the end of the year.

Speaking to the business lobby group at London’s O2 centre, the prime minister called for a “strategic, long-term partnership” with business, and said she was determined to give “as much certainty as possible” on the Brexit transition period.

“The government I lead is determined to support British business,” she said, laying out the government’s strategy for a “stronger, fairer, better-balanced economy”.

Mrs May’s stance towards business has see-sawed since she became prime minister. She originally promised to promote better behaviour by companies, but then backed off from proposals such as introducing workers on British boards. Since the departure of advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, No 10 has made efforts to re-engage with business leaders and their concerns.

Labour party

Mr Corbyn said, in a well-received speech to the 1,300 delegates, that there was “common ground” between business and the Labour party on the threat a “no deal” on Brexit posed to the economy.

“Many of you feel no closer to having the clarity about the direction of travel you so desperately need [than a year ago],” the Labour leader said, blaming “chaos and confusion at the heart of government”.

“Time is running out,” he said. “Guarantees are needed now to stop firms cutting the UK out of their business models.”

He said a transitional arrangement needed to be agreed immediately, and added that EU citizens working in the UK should be unilaterally guaranteed full rights to remain. “We agree on the need to signal that the UK remains open to the rest of the world, that Europe is not the enemy,” he said.

Delegates at the conference appeared impressed, albeit somewhat surprised, by Mr Corbyn’s pro-business tone.

After Paul Drechsler, the CBI president, compared the approach to Brexit to a soap opera, consultant Dina Medland said on Twitter that watching Mr Corbyn address the conference was like “switching from a soap suddenly to a hard news story about human issues — extraordinary delivery”.

Others applauded the confidence of his delivery.

Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-general, said: “Labour are right that agreeing a transition deal as soon as possible is mission critical to maintain business confidence. There is cross party agreement on this now and so this is the time for urgent action.”

Within his generally conciliatory message, Mr Corbyn repeated calls for employers to give British workers a pay rise, and said a Labour government would raise taxes and nationalise utility companies.

Ms Fairbairn responded: “Industrial strategy and Brexit must be focused on building a fair, innovative and productive UK economy where society benefits.” She added, “There are fundamental differences on the ways to get there.

“It is clear that competitive markets are the best way to improve people’s lives. Abandoning this model will hurt those who need help most and make the UK a laggard in the global race for investment.

Mrs May promised an industrial strategy that would set the “right frameworks” for business investment, without making a plan “for every corner of our economy”.

Her pledge was welcomed by the CBI, but Ms Fairbairn said: “These welcome words must be followed through: clarity on industrial strategy and Brexit ambitions must be matched with urgent delivery,” she said. “Firms will do all they can to make this happen.”

Gavin Patterson, chief executive of BT, had told the conference that BT was dependent on attracting workers from the EU and that it was “very urgent” to get clarity on the transition arrangements.

“From the beginning of next calendar year the value of a deal would begin to deteriorate,” he warned.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017