Having been awarded the title of business editor of this paper by Boris Johnson in his former incarnation, I know more than most people about the extent of his interest in how businesses succeed or fail, what motivates those who run them and what they want from government. The answer is that his attention span for such subject matter is vanishingly small and that the opportunity to address the CBI conference in the midst of an election campaign would have been no more stimulating for him than a request to pop in and say something funny at the retirement party of a Downing Street doorman whose name he’d never learned.
Little surprise, then, that he managed no more than a couple of hollow compliments for the assembled corporate chiefs on Monday before telling them he was rescinding a long-promised cut in corporation tax from 19 to 17 per cent. These plutocrats were hardly likely to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, after all, or to be persuaded by Jo Swinson that the Liberal Democrats are ‘the party of business’ in any other respect than her urge to please them by reversing Brexit. The boardroom crowd doesn’t trust Boris and he doesn’t care: this was all about the soundbite in which he took £6 billion off them and gave it to the NHS. Job done, back on the battle bus.
But does the decision matter, either as a deterrent to investment or an indication of Boris’s propensity to keep promises? Expectations on the latter front are generally so low that I think we can leave it aside — this wasn’t even his promise in the first place, but George Osborne’s. As to the former, we still have a lower corporate tax rate than the US (21 per cent) and the rest of the G20; and we know multinationals use every trick to minimise tax everywhere anyway. What will swing inward investment decisions — and business confidence generally — after this election is not the last digit of the tax rate but whether there’s a competent government with a broad slate of pro-enterprise policies and no intention of crippling itself with public debt. In that sense Boris’s £6 billion slap for the CBI was a drop in a bucket — but it wasn’t a bad call.
Why Elon’s gone to Berlin
In a parallel universe, Elon Musk might now be negotiating to buy Nissan’s showpiece UK factory, from which he would lead a transformation of our automotive industry for the electric car era.
It’s been a while since I’ve written about car-making, so let’s catch up. The future of the Sunderland plant where Nissan builds the Qashqai, Juke and Leaf models came into question last month when the Japanese company announced an end to night shifts — and was forced to deny that it’s thinking of selling the whole site, which also houses the UK’s most advanced battery factory. Reflecting falling European market share and fears of a bad Brexit, this follows Nissan’s decision in February to make the X-Trail SUV in Japan rather than Sunderland — and the ousting of chairman Carlos Ghosn, widely seen (whatever the French-Lebanese executive may have contributed to his own downfall) as a clawback of company power to Japan. It has echoes of Honda’s decision to close its Swindon plant, of rumblings from Toyota — and of what I’m told is a collective but unspoken decision by corporate Japan to shun the UK if we no longer offer a safe landing strip for Europe.
If the risk-averse Japanese are pulling out, you might think a maverick risktaker like Elon Musk — whose Tesla project is the cutting edge of electric car fashion — is the kind of guy who’d be attracted to Boris’s freewheeling Britain; he has form, too, having bought a huge former GM-Toyota factory as Tesla’s main site in California. But the bad news is that he has decided to site his first European ‘gigafactory’ in Berlin, along with a research and development facility he originally talked of opening in the UK, for the very reason that Brexit uncertainty has ‘made it too risky’ to break ground here. To which other sources add that an exodus of skilled engineers and techies since 2016 would make it impossible for Musk to hire the large workforce he needs — even if, in my fantasy world, he was able to take over Nissan’s world-class Sunderland team.
Ah well, at least Boris is promising to spend £500 million to install plug-in points for electric cars within 30 miles of every UK household. But if that kickstarts demand, most of the new vehicles sold (except for some high-priced Jaguars from Castle Bromwich) won’t be designed or built in surviving British auto factories — which will see falling sales of outmoded petrol and diesel models. I wish I could find a silver lining to all this, but I really can’t.
Another favourite topic I haven’t visited lately is the architecture of the City of London and what it tells us about the financial sector’s health and confidence. Strolling westwards from Bank station towards seafood tagliolini at Manicomio in Gutter Lane (there’s your restaurant tip for this week), I was thinking that both James Stirling’s postmodern, pink-striped No. 1 Poultry and Jean Nouvel’s space-age One New Change shopping mall near St Paul’s have mellowed pleasantly into the streetscape. But then I looked back towards the classical front of the Royal Exchange and was shocked by the graceless bunch of skyscrapers behind it, the Walkie-Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street) and the Cheesegrater (122 Leadenhall Street) now shouldered aside by the 62-storey bulk of 22 Bishopsgate, London’s second tallest building after the Shard.
All these developments represent the City’s planning response, in the pre-crash 2000s, to an exodus of major financial tenants to Canary Wharf or the West End; but the towers’ available space now offers a ready answer to banks and others whom Brexit might have driven away. And their monstrous configuration, looming over the historic City skyline, resembles nothing so much as a giant V-sign in the direction of Brussels, Paris and Frankfurt.