In a speech at Mansion House, CBI Director General Carolyn Fairbairn focused on the importance of partnership to deliver on Brexit, as well as on the other challenges and opportunities facing the UK.
Speaking the day before cross-party talks failed, she issued a plea:
"From the heart of business, to the heart of politics. Resolve this gridlock. Do whatever it takes, and do it fast. Find the common ground and reach a solution. If the cross-party talks are to fail. Move to the next stage – fast. Parliament must find a way through. Take the opportunity. Get a deal."
A breakthrough would mean businesses can turn to the future with "unbounded enthusiasm", she continued. And this could be used to tackle the issues of productivity, skills, climate change and renewing our infrastructure.
"None can be done without a new partnership between government and business. And for this to work both sides need to change," she said.
Good evening Lord mayor, Lady Mayoress, Ladies and gentlemen. It’s great to see firms here from the length and breadth of the land.
A mark not only of the importance of the City to the country, but the importance of the country to the City. That brilliantly British two-way street that has stood the test of time so well.
Next door is the new Bloomberg building. During construction the builders found Britain’s earliest handwritten document. Nearly two thousand years old. In Latin. And when it was deciphered, it was – so fittingly I think – a receipt for a loan.
A contribution not only to British business folklore but to our literary history as well.
But I know today has been about looking forward, not back.
And Lord Mayor, I understand you’ve had a great day to today and may I take this chance thank you for your unwavering support for business across UK.
Tonight, a very different kind of business dinner. No black tie for a start. Thank you!
And I too want to look forward, and have one simple message: this could be a golden age for the UK. I know the uncertainty can be daunting. But as Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Dennis Gabor said so memorably:
"We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it."
I firmly believe the UK can invent a great future
- prosperity that’s more evenly shared
- a chance to succeed for every young person
- an environment protected
And, at its foundation successful, responsible, passionate businesses, creating wealth and opportunity across the country. All within our grasp if we do the right things and as important don’t waste time on the wrong ones.
It’s been a deep relief for many of us that other issues have cut through in this post-Easter lull in the Brexit storm. Climate change: where business is up for the net-zero challenge. A greater focus on how we reskill as many as 10 million people for the new world of work. And today – local industrial strategies: the best way of tackling inequality and unlocking growth outside London, with the West Midlands trailblazing and others close behind.
But if we are going to invent this kind of future, there’s no time to lose and two things in particular I want to talk about this evening.
First, the absolute imperative of ending the suffocating Brexit gridlock. And second, how we can use this moment in our history…this extraordinary moment to forge a new kind of relationship between politics and business, with change on both sides.
So it’s great to have a mix of firms and politicians in the room – again, Lord mayor, something you and your team do so well.
Let me start by stating the obvious. The Brexit process is in a mess. Not Brexit itself – the CBI has backed leaving with a good deal from the day after the referendum.
But the paralysis is a crushing disaster. Every day without a deal is corrosive.
Our surveys tell us that intentions to invest are at their lowest since the financial crash.
While politicians prevaricate, CEOs are having to make painful decisions in firms that make our cars, our trains, and the steel that builds them. And in the hundreds of smaller firms in their supply chains.
Sales down. Costs up. Right now. £800 billion of financial capital moved out of the UK.
Creative and tech firms that should be the foundation of our future economy moving their headquarters to Europe. And firms everywhere sinking money into contingency plans with no upside.
Stockpiling among manufacturers is at its highest since the 1950s, all to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, still a possibility for Halloween night.
This isn’t just anecdote. It’s economic fact.
And, of course, so many other decisions about our country not being taken.
Our MPs have not voted in the Commons for over a month. Forgive this litany, but it really matters.
So, today I have a plea. From the heart of business, to the heart of politics. Resolve this gridlock. Do whatever it takes, and do it fast.
Find the common ground and reach a solution. If the cross-party talks are to fail. Move to the next stage – fast. Parliament must find a way through. Take the opportunity. Get a deal.
And if this fails? it’s not the job of business to tell politicians when to trigger democratic events. But failure in Westminster will inevitably mean support for an election or second referendum will grow.
Business needs pace, decisions, leadership, measured in days and weeks, not months and years.
And can I at this point say thank you to the Secretary of State, Greg Clark for all you have done to bring the voice of the economy into politics and into the cabinet. We could not appreciate it more.
So, all reasons to secure that breakthrough, so we can turn to the future with relief and unbounded enthusiasm.
I’ve touched on what we at the CBI think are the biggest challenges facing the UK. Productivity across the country. Getting skills and education system right for a new tech world. Tackling climate change. Renewing our infrastructure.
Each one huge, and none can be done without a new partnership between government and business. And for this to work both sides need to change.
Let me start with business. This is a chance for business to lead, to show the difference we can make. Business has always been about profit, but it’s also been about so much more than that.
This is a time to talk about, and – even more importantly - act on, profit with purpose.
And for government, there needs to be change too. Adversarial politics isn’t working. We’ve seen this in spades with Brexit. As a nation we are used to governments winning big majorities. And it’s easy to still consider that the norm. But it’s not. No party has won – and sustained – a strong majority in this country for nearly 15 years.
And with the country so divided, it’s not likely to happen soon. That has implications for business. Which above all else needs long-term vision, stability of policy. Not a tearing up of the rules every 5 years.
In the past 30 years there have been 29 changes on skills policy. We have not had an industrial strategy that has stood the test of time. We desperately need this to change.
And Greg, you have shown terrific leadership in championing a new industrial strategy. Let’s build on it, make it cross-party and forge a true consensus, across parties, regions, and nations. And let’s use it to show the world how fantastic the UK is for business.
The stage is set to do exactly this.
Recently I was in Tokyo, for a meeting of the B20 - the business voice of the G20. I was challenged over again by other countries on how the UK is doing. They hear nothing but Brexit, they feel a bit sorry for us.
So I told them about our leading position in global fintech; our record employment and tax receipts; that UK exports are growing at record rates; and that we have four universities in the global top ten in the latest rankings. And it made the front page of the Japan Times.
Global investors – and the world at large - want and need to hear this and more from the UK. We need to be talking and acting on our strengths.
But it does need to be a partnership between all parts of the UK. Government and business. Unions and academia. One might even call it the partnership of the century.
There are some great examples to build on. The West Midlands and other industrial strategies. The sector deals – life sciences, creative industries. Made Smarter. Be the Business.
Imagine what this kind of partnership could achieve in other fields.
On climate change, business can deliver the innovations in heat, power and transport. Government can deliver certainty: commit to the net zero goal and guarantee cross-party consensus so policies endure.
On building the workforce of the future, business will step up its engagement in schools to help deliver the Gatsby benchmarks. From government we ask for space in the curriculum to equip pupils with the broader skills they need for the new world of work.
And on making the UK fairer, let’s build local industrial strategies that are long-term and ambitious in every part of the country.
On public services, can we build a new model for attracting the billions we need for our rail, digital, and national infrastructure?
I think we can.
So to close. Tonight, I’ve called for the partnership of the century. Business and government. State and citizen. People, politicians and private enterprise.
It requires an end to conflict politics and binary thinking. Businesses as problem solvers, profit with purpose.
Yes, Brexit has shown how hard it can be. But today the West Midlands has shown it can be done.
And so many other examples to celebrate.
So though we can’t predict the future – and perhaps now less than ever – together, we can create it.