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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Boris’s shambolic schtick cannot conceal the breakdown in Downing Street

Such tension highlights another contradiction at the heart of this Government. The Conservatives promised to deliver a free-wheeling, buccaneering vision of global Britain while simultaneously distancing itself from the business community. This is a bit like promising space travel and simultaneously distancing yourself from engineers.

Many of the business leaders I have talked to in recent weeks are questioning whether the Prime Minister really understands what they do or considers it important. Those that know him argue Johnson is reflexively in favour of free markets and pro business.

In many ways, the Prime Minister hopes that business will help cure many of society’s ills, be that achieving net zero, improving skills or correcting inequality. Unfortunately he keeps saddling the cavalry with additional burdens. And then, to add insult to injury, he reflexively blames the corporate world for those self-same woes.

Depending on your viewpoint, Brexit has caused problems that need to be solved or created opportunities that must be seized. The Government is doing neither.

Even freeports – a questionable Brexit dividend, which many argue would merely shift economic activity around the country rather than boost it – are apparently at risk of being quietly killed off.

There are bright spots. One chief executive I spoke to last week marvelled at the amount Dave Lewis, the former Tesco boss, has achieved in the few short weeks since he was appointed as the Government’s supply chain adviser. But this is seen as a rare exception that proves the rule.

What’s more, such successes are also entirely tactical. Where’s the strategy? Why weren’t the likes of Lewis brought in earlier to prepare for such entirely predictable and predicted problems? And who is heading up the longer-term thinking about which sectors the UK should be throwing resources at and how we can get the most bang for every R&D buck?

Earlier this month the Government set a not-so-new target to export £1 trillion of goods and services a year by 2034. Not long after I spoke to the boss of a huge British export success story. He has repeatedly approached Whitehall officials about helping other businesses that are attempting to break into new markets.

Each time he is welcomed with huge initial enthusiasm, but then the official moves on before any plans can be finalised, leaving him needing to find someone new to approach.

It’s a similar story from those business leaders who have talked to the Government about the need to overhaul regulation. They are greeted with nods but also shrugged shoulders. Officials agree with the broad thrust of the argument but say there is simply not enough bandwidth to take on such projects.

The massive turnover in civil servants has left the Whitehall machine in a permanent state of inertia. The Number 10 business unit is widely thought to be fatally underpowered.

Deep down, Johnson must know that unless he gets serious and addresses these failings the Government’s targets won’t be hit and its slogans will remain empty words. The question is: can he?

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