Rishi Sunak will launch a charm offensive with business leaders next week, in an attempt to galvanise his growth agenda and counter Labour’s growing success in wooing corporate Britain.
The prime minister has told his cabinet to strengthen links with senior business leaders and “embed practical business insights into policymaking”, ahead of a big event in London on Monday.
Sunak’s initiative is aimed at resetting relations between business and the Conservative government, following economic upheaval and acrimony between the two sides during the regimes of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Senior Tories admit that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is winning over some in the business community through a relentless “prawn cocktail offensive” in the City of London and across the country.
Sunak on Tuesday introduced to his cabinet Franck Petitgas, a former Morgan Stanley executive who was last week appointed the prime minister’s new business and investment adviser.
Next week ministers including chancellor Jeremy Hunt and business secretary Kemi Badenoch will join Sunak in a series of events in London dubbed “Business Connect”.
“A lot of C-suite business figures will be there,” said one government official, who confirmed Sunak wanted to step up business engagement. “It’s a big deal. This is the next thing we are really going to prioritise.”
Johnson’s infamous “fuck business” comment came to symbolise the post-Brexit breakdown of relations between the Conservatives and the corporate world, a rift exploited by Starmer.
Although Hunt’s Budget was welcomed by business, it is commonplace for senior executives to complain they cannot get a meeting with — or even a response from — ministers.
Labour is expecting to sell out its business events at this autumn’s annual party conference in Liverpool. Last year’s event saw the highest company attendance since 2010, the last year that the party was in power. Separately, a business conference during the winter attracted more than 350 senior attendees.
Figures who have offered warm words about Labour’s current leadership include John Allan, chair of Tesco, who has described the party’s economic policy as “credible, committed”.
Starmer, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds have made a concerted drive to engage with executives over the past three years.
According to Labour party officials, the team has met more than 1,000 business leaders during that period, including many FTSE 250 chairs and chief executives.
For Starmer and Reeves, who chose to meet leaders from US investment banks during a trip to Davos, the outreach is a highly visible way to distance themselves from the previous Labour leadership under “hard-left” veteran Jeremy Corbyn.
An Opinium survey of 500 business leaders in December, privately commissioned by Labour, found that a majority looked favourably on the idea of a Labour government.
Some 32 per cent of leaders of large businesses thought a Labour government would be better for them, compared with 26 per cent for the Conservatives. There were also leads for Labour of 8 per cent and 6 per cent among medium-sized and small businesses, according to the poll.
Overall the party had improved its net favourability with business leaders from +3 to +15 between July and December 2022, according to the survey.
However, business leaders argue that politicians must engage in the substance of policy, not just hold drinks parties. “It’s easy to engage on a broad level,” said one senior business figure.