Back in the quaint old days of 2010, or even 2015, being viewed as the party of business was a good thing. For David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband, convincing the public that you were pro-business was a vital part of proving your credibility. It’s fair to say things have changed now. Central to Corbyn’s brand of leftism is distrust of big business, who are deemed ‘the few’ who take from ‘the many’ and don’t pay their fair share. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s famous ‘f**k business’ remark sums up an attitude of some pro-Brexit Tories who have increasingly viewed big business as a roadblock that gets in the way of the more important goal of leaving the European Union.
This trend to bash business rather than back it made yesterday interesting as all three major Party Leaders took turns to address the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) Annual Conference. First up was the Prime Minister who made a number of promises that are likely to have been popular for the audience including once again promising to reform business rates, a cut to national insurance for some employers, as well as an increase in tax credits for research and development. However, the stick to go with this carrot was a pledge to postpone cuts to corporation tax, which was due to come down to 17% from 19%, arguing that this would free up £6bn for the NHS. This was a clear indication that appealing to big business is only a partial priority for Johnson – there are more votes to be won on NHS funding than in corporation tax cuts, especially in the formerly Labour pro-Brexit towns he has his eye on.
Besides, Johnson’s main rival Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to be a threat when it comes to the business vote. Corbyn appearing infront of the CBI is a bit like Boris Johnson giving a keynote at the Trade Union Congress. He could have said anything and would still be public enemy number one. The Labour leader tried to argue that business should back the Labour Party, citing support for a ‘green industrial revolution’ and huge infrastructure spending that would benefit the economy. But unsurprisingly, this didn’t cut it, and the CBI Director General responded scathingly to Corbyn’s ‘false instincts for mass nationalisation’ and accused him of wrongly blaming business for inequality. Ouch.
If anyone could rival Johnson for the pro-business vote it is probably Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems. Afterall, Swinson has the golden blend of opposing Brexit while also not being a Marxist and in today’s madcap politics, this is a killer combo! Swinson’s speech understandably focused on Brexit, as she argued that it would be a disaster for British businesses and shot back at Boris Johnson’s claim that ‘getting Brexit done’ would be in any way beneficial. In terms of policy, Swinson announced that the Lib Dems would scrap business rates and replace them with a commercial landowner levy, which will please some, but is likely to be a case of replacing one unpopular policy with another.
This is the election of public spending promises, not of cosying up to corporations. But while the Parties may feel it’s electorally advantageous to be aloof towards business, hostile rhetoric will likely be replaced with pragmatism once a new Government is formed. Politicians need business as much as business needs politicians, and whatever the new Government looks like, that will still be the case.