Business leaders at 10 Downing Street © Getty
British business leaders say that an apparent rapprochement with prime minister Theresa May appears to have faltered, with relations characterised by a “mistrust” and frostiness” that they fear could have a negative impact on the shape of any Brexit deal.
Their concerns were reinforced in Davos on Thursday, when the prime minister failed to stay for a lunch held for business leaders with chancellor Philip Hammond.
“She missed an opportunity to just demonstrate to a lot of people in the room that business priorities matter to her,” said one person at the lunch. “A lot of eyebrows were raised,” said another guest.
In fact, Mrs May had to leave in order to prepare for her big Davos speech, which she gave shortly after the lunch. “It seems unfair that she showed up and there’s still this umbrage,” said one government figure.
Yet unfavourable comparisons were drawn at the lunch between Mrs May’s attitude towards domestic and foreign investors, and that of French president Emmanuel Macron, who has gone out of his way to woo British business. Mr Macron invited chief executives from 140 UK and global companies to the palace at Versailles just before Davos.
Suspicion has governed relations between business leaders and the prime minister since the early months of her premiership, when, on the advice of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, then her co-chiefs of staff, she tried to distance herself from big business.
As Mrs May prepares to travel to China next week with about 50 business people, including FTSE heavyweights such as BP, one invitee said the trip would be the “real test” of whether business could “get through” to her.
The concern over poor relations between Downing Street and business is inextricably linked to fears over Brexit. Many executives crave greater access to try to influence the outcome.
One FTSE 100 chairman said there was a worrying lack of basic information from government on Brexit: “Now we’re in January there is silence. There is nothing but a vacuum.”
The CBI employers’ organisation this week added its voice to the call for more direction from the government, ideally via a single point of contact. It pointed out that many industries had received no communication about Brexit plans since the government’s white paper was published in February last year.
“People seemed to be celebrating the end of phase one [of the Brexit negotiations] as if it was a touchdown rather than the beginning of the game,” said Paul Drechsler, president of the CBI. “Cabinet has still not reviewed, evaluated, decided upon the impact [Brexit] is going to have on different industries. No [company] board would get away with behaving like this.”
Ministerial turnover has not helped the lines of communication: 85 out of 122 ministers were not in their current posts before the election in June last year and critics say the churn is damaging Brexit preparations.
The supposedly regular meetings of the high-level business group on Brexit, which are chaired by Mr Hammond, Brexit secretary David Davis and business secretary Greg Clark — and attended by the five main business groups — has met infrequently since it was set up in June.
There is no date for its next meeting but in a bid to address the concerns of business leaders, the three ministers on Friday sent a joint letter to reassure them on the Brexit transition.
But several figures who have attended the gatherings say that it is Mrs May who needs to understand their negotiating priorities, rather than Mr Davis or Mr Clark.
“Business is not spending a huge amount of time trying to convince David Davis because he doesn’t care about details, and everyone knows ultimately she’s going to decide,” said one. “David Davis is quite distant now from the fray,” agreed another.
Mrs May’s allies point out that she has held round tables with the motor industry, tech companies, financial services and life sciences in recent months.
Many business representatives say they value the business secretary’s willingness to listen, but this has not translated into action. “All that data gathering has delivered nothing,” the senior business leader said. And he questioned Mr Clark’s willingness to challenge the prime minister.
Mr Clark’s allies say he has produced tangible results. They credit him for helping engineer cabinet support for the two-year Brexit transition period, convincing Nissan to stay in the UK, and producing an industrial strategy.
Business leaders concede that relations with Downing Street have improved since Ms Hill and Mr Timothy quit last summer, and even admit that business has moved “further up the agenda”.
But they remain anxious at what they see as Mrs May’s lack of enthusiasm for their input in the Brexit process.
“She comes at business from that Home Office, security-first background,” says one business lobbyist. “She certainly doesn’t talk very much about the positive things, [and] there’s always a nervousness. Talking to business just doesn’t come instinctively to her.”