"I had never been spoken to like that in all my 40 years in business. Put simply, there was no respect.” That’s what Paul Drechsler, the former CBI president, told me about his encounter with advisers at the top of government in the months after the Brexit referendum.
He emerged from Downing Street having been “screamed at” for almost an hour. More recently a major inward investor in the UK told me: “I don’t think the relationship between business and politicians has been this low since the mid-1970s.”
I feel compelled to agree. A more positive relationship between business and policymakers would be good for our country’s long-term future. In my new book F**k Business – the Business of Brexit I unpack what has gone wrong and attempt to chart a path towards putting it right.
Of course it takes two to tango, and for some time after the referendum many in business were in denial. Business didn’t expect to lose the economic argument, and in many ways that argument was never lost. But business has failed to make the positive case for a deal with the EU and that case has not become overwhelmingly accepted by the political class. Three years on — to paraphrase our last prime minister — nothing has changed in that regard.
What has changed is that the locus of the debate has veered off into a Westminster psychodrama that most business leaders — like most voters — find soul destroying. How did we get to a place where a no-deal option became mainstream? I will tell you how. Since the summer of 2016 politicians on all sides have been listening to the Westminster bubble more than to the key players in the economy.
Large and small businesses tell me they feel policymakers pay lip service to their opinions or trust that business has the resources and financial muscle to deal with the uncertainty. Those resources are wearing thin. Business ability to plan is more restricted than at any time since the financial crisis over a decade ago. What to tell staff, customers, suppliers?
Worse, there is clear evidence in recent weeks that international investors are holding back until the political crisis is over. Every day the UK is losing opportunities.
The desire in Westminster and Whitehall to talk to wealth creators is fickle. Policymakers blow hot and cold. It seems it only works when politicians can snap their fingers for business to come running. The mystery surrounding how they want to engage with business needs to be replaced with a transparent system of engagement on the best ideas — not on the basis of who you know.
Business needs to step up to the plate too. It needs to show it is committed to providing opportunity for everyone, not just those in the bubble, and to do so in a sustained and long-term way.
During the referendum itself most businesses were reluctant participants. Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former adviser, told me: “It was hard to get business to speak up. They feared the backlash. George Osborne used to say to me, ‘Don’t count on business to do anything; we will have to do it all ourselves.’”
Quite simply, without business politicians will have very little to do for themselves. Let’s turn a new chapter in relations between business and politics. Right now.
Originally published in the Times on October 8th.
Iain Anderson’s ‘F**k Business — The Business Of Brexit’ is out now and currently featuring in our Black Friday Sale. Get it for half price here!