2018 was marked by instability and uncertainty. It was a year for business to have a strong voice, and, with our members’ help, the CBI had significant success in influencing decisions in fields from skills and education to innovation, tax and, of course, Brexit. Working together, we have made a real difference.
So I wanted to share some of my reflections on that and outline the CBI’s early priorities for 2019.
Brexit: a year of mitigating risk and navigating uncertainty
Brexit has inevitably dominated the agenda. As I write, the outcome of the negotiations and Parliamentary process remain highly uncertain. Throughout the year, the CBI has pushed for economic pragmatism over political ideology. We have ensured the business voice has been heard at every level in the UK and across Europe. Our Smooth Operations report, covering the regulatory needs of 18 sectors from the new EU/UK trade relationship, played a vital role in providing negotiators on both sides of the Channel with the evidence they needed to shape the workable new deal. It was the CBI who first called for a ‘status quo’ transition to support jobs and avoid a cliff-edge, a policy position later adopted by the UK government and the EU.
We have been particularly resolute in our opposition to a ‘no deal’ outcome. Small firms are not ready. Large firms would need to implement mitigating plans that will cost jobs and livelihoods. It is already happening. This is a time for cool heads, common sense and pragmatism, and member’s evidence has been invaluable in enabling us to influence MPs from all parties. It is now widely believed that there is a majority in Westminster against ‘No deal’: the CBI’s voice has been hugely instrumental in changing minds to enable this position to be reached. But there is no room for complacency – the business voice will be as important as ever in the months ahead.
The domestic agenda: renewed focus on the big questions that matter
Progress on the domestic front has also been significant. The CBI has helped to secure parliamentary approval for Heathrow expansion, much-needed reforms to the Apprenticeship Levy, a pro-enterprise Budget, and the biggest increase in government R&D expenditure in 40 years. These are great outcomes for business.
At the same time, the relationship between business and Government is on a strong footing. The CBI has established more formal groups for engagement across Number 10, Whitehall and Westminster, including the Prime Minister’s new business advisory groups and an industrial strategy council.
The CBI’s engagement with the Labour Party has also grown. Though Labour’s ideology is deep rooted on issues such as nationalisation, better dialogue does help to influence Labour policy. We have seen this on Brexit, R&D and business rates, and are now engaged in a productive debate on employee share ownership, where the CBI has convened a working group that is engaging directly with the Shadow Chancellor.
The international agenda: seizing the opportunity for building trade and global investment
Further afield, the CBI’s international offices have had a hugely successful year. I attended the vital trade mission to China with the Prime Minster in January, and we have continued influence on members’ behalf from our offices in Delhi, Beijing and Washington. The Government’s exports strategy was built directly on members’ insight. We have also been vocal in outlining concerns around the proposed USA tariffs on steel and aluminium, which has helped to influence the EU-US discussions.
The next twelve months: providing solutions to the challenges
This year has been one of many achievements, and 2019 promises to be just as challenging. As the country seeks to emerge from this period of extreme uncertainty, the CBI will be resolutely focused on ensuring the UK is a great place to invest.
But perhaps the biggest opportunity is to show how business and Government working together can tackle the deep-seated challenges in our society. Finding new solutions to important issues from regional inequality to workplace engagement will position business as problem solvers, contributors and partners. At the heart of this must be a revitalised industrial strategy that sets a clear vision for the country, a good deal on Brexit and immigration, and great businesses that are clearer than ever about their contribution.
To find out more about the CBI's achievements in 2018, read our Year of Impact report.