Theresa May likes to give a kitten-heeled kicking to conference audiences, even when they are police officers or her own party delegates. But at the CBI gathering at Grosvenor House in London on Monday, she was out to make friends with soothing (if essentially hollow) remarks about Brexit, and promises of the lowest corporate tax rates in the G20 and an extra £2 billion a year for research and development to help the UK stay close to the forefront of technology and bioscience. Assembled fat cats may still have been irritated by her commitment to binding annual shareholder votes on executive pay, but at least she backed away from putting workers’ representatives on boards, a threat that contributed to the anti-business tone of her Tory leadership campaign in July.
So far so good, you might say, and Chancellor Philip Hammond’s commitment in his Autumn Statement to infrastructure spending, on roads and railways as well as broadband, was another gesture in the right direction: any spending that relieves congestion, shifts freight and helps small firms trade online is a useful jab in the flabby backside of national productivity. Business drives and shapes the economy, creating the jobs and the spending money that pay the taxes that fund the state; so every government needs business on its side, and even Jeremy Corbyn paid his respects with some waffle about Labour being ‘on the side of the innovators, entrepreneurs and investors’, even if his more pressing concern is ‘injustice in the workplace’.
It was polite of the CBI folk to give Corbyn a hearing at all, given his irrelevance to their fortunes, but they should recognise also that most of the offerings from Hammond and May are piffling in relation to the scale of the challenge facing Britain as a global competitor.