RUTH SUNDERLAND: Listen to business, Boris

The Conservatives are supposed to be the party of entrepreneurship, of wealth creation, of low tax and of sound public finances. But that is not how it looks right now to many business people.

The fact Boris Johnson pulled out of a speech to the CBI conference on Monday was not in itself an unforgivable snub. 

Yet it betrays an attitude towards business that at best looks like incomprehension and at worst, contempt.

The fact Boris Johnson pulled out of a speech to the CBI conference betrays an attitude towards business that at best looks like incomprehension and at worst, contempt

The fact Boris Johnson pulled out of a speech to the CBI conference betrays an attitude towards business that at best looks like incomprehension and at worst, contempt

The fact Boris Johnson pulled out of a speech to the CBI conference betrays an attitude towards business that at best looks like incomprehension and at worst, contempt

It brings back memories of that 2018 aside, when the PM, then foreign secretary, was overheard to say: ‘F**k business’ when challenged over Brexit.

Against that background, perhaps it shouldn’t be a shock to learn the Government saw no need to carry out an economic impact assessment before embarking on a second lockdown. But the admission, from Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, is telling.

The UK is in the fortunate position of being able to throw a lot of money at fighting the virus, because of the prudence of previous Conservative governments, and that is the right thing to do.

Nonetheless, the PM and his scientist side-kicks are conveying an impression they think businesses are expendable – mere collateral damage in the all-consuming fight against Covid.

Weighing up the interests of business and the economic costs of a lockdown is not a question of cruel capitalists wishing to put profits above people’s lives. 

The optimum response to Covid-19 is more complex than merely fixating on the pandemic in isolation. 

Yet the Prime Minister, in thrall to his scientific advisers, appears to be taking decisions in an economic vacuum, with a blinkered focus on the wretched virus to the exclusion of virtually all else.

Business may be disregarded – surely the PM could have carved out ten minutes to Zoom into the CBI at the start of the week – but is doing a better job at fighting Covid than politicians. 

Our largest pharmaceutical companies, Astrazeneca and GSK, are at the forefront of the race for a vaccine. The entrepreneurial British arm of diagnostics firm Novacyt has moved rapidly to produce tests. 

Countless firms joined the national effort in the first lockdown by switching production to ventilators, PPE or masks.

The remarkable agility and innovation I have witnessed in firms throughout this crisis is one reason I am ultimately optimistic for the economy, without underestimating the depths of our problems now.

Just as running a full marathon is more than twice as hard as a half, this lockdown will be much more difficult than the first one. Firms are going into it weary and depleted, with no finishing line in sight.

Yes, we need to flatten the curve of Covid infections, but we also need to do the same for job losses and insolvencies.

Yes, we need to protect the NHS, not only against being over-run by Covid patients, but also to safeguard its long-term future. Boris warned that if the wards are swamped in the next few weeks, the NHS will not be there for us.

But if private sector businesses do not generate the profits and tax revenues to pay for the NHS, it will not be there for us in future. 

The ballooning debt we have run up to pay for the Covid response is not an immediate problem, but in the absence of a proper blueprint to rebuild the economy it could easily become one. 

In his speech, the CBI president Lord Bilimoria quotes the Irish author James Joyce: ‘I am tomorrow what I establish today.’

To which I would add this, from the American writer Ernest Hemingway: ‘How did you go bankrupt?’ asks one character in his novel The Sun Also Rises. ‘Two ways,’ is the reply. ‘Gradually then suddenly.’

Last post

Paula Vennells should jettison her plans to spend more time with her corporate directorships after leaving her job as CEO of the Post Office under a cloud following the Horizon IT scandal.

Lobby group Pirc is, quite rightly, calling on shareholders at retail group Dunelm to vote against her reappointment in her £50,000-a-year post.

Mrs Vennells dragged hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters and mistresses to court so it is queasy to see her hauling in the best part of £200,000 a year from her portfolio career, including a seat on the board at supermarket Morrisons.

The decent, dignified thing to do would be to resign honourably from her directorships, and spare the companies concerned from further embarrassment. 

Retailers have enough problems in the pandemic without an albatross like Post Office Paula.

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