Ben Mascall: Business can be more upbeat after the PM's speech

Written by Ben Mascall on 5 October 2018 in Opinion

Theresa May's conference speech was her clearest exposition yet of how business fits into her political philosophy.

There are many speeches at a Conservative party conference, but even allowing for Boris there is really only one. And all but the Prime Minister’s most ardent critics will acknowledge that she gave it a rather hefty thwack out of the park.

The dancing worked and the delivery was good. But the substance and the structure of the speech was what made it sing. As I wrote in an article last Friday, Keelan Carr is due much of the credit for that. The minimum objective of shoring up her position and seeing off the immediate threat from Boris was achieved. He has moved slightly backwards. Many, in what is ultimately a polite rank and file, will see his behaviour as a little discourteous, love him though many others still do.
 
The bigger prize is to shift the dial on the Chequers plan. It is a large ask and too soon to have a meaningful sense of whether it has been, answered. But it was a spirited attempt, brilliantly framed.

While a few rounds of applause are not a scientific metric, you don’t get a clap for free on Brexit at a Conservative conference. A couple of the lines that did were striking: If we all go off in different directions in pursuit of our own visions of the perfect Brexit then we risk ending up with no Brexit at all, for example.
 
Or her summing up of Chequers: It delivers on the referendum. It keeps faith with the British people. It is in the national interest. Even before she mentioned Brexit, we were reminded that we owe it to those who died for this country to make the best of its future; that we need to come together to do that; that compromise is not a dirty word.
 
One dirty word which was uttered – well, almost – was about business. Here we saw a shift: "To all businesses, large and small, you may have heard that there is a four-letter word to describe what we Conservatives want to do to you…It ends in the letter K…Back business. Back them to create jobs and prosperity. Back them to drive innovation and improve lives."
 
This speech was her clearest exposition of how business fits into her political philosophy: offering someone a job - creating opportunity for other people - is one of the most socially-responsible things you can do. Clear rejection of Labour’s employee ownership model was not guaranteed and will have caused a collective sigh of relief across industry. Her rebuke of nationalisation may seem obvious but needed to be heard too. 
 
As expected, grumbling about the domestic programme bubbled up. There isn’t all that much that can be done about that, at least for now. The loss of a majority, a manifesto and a large lump of political authority at the last election will continue to constrain No10 until they get close enough to the next one to cast forward beyond it – something the opposition can already do. 
 
In times past, Governments could at least steal and implement the most eye-catching ideas of their opponents. With the two parties so far apart, that isn’t an option either. But for businesses: there is a little more hope that if a deal gets to parliament, it will get through parliament. There is a better idea of why business matters to a former local councillor and home secretary. And, with the notable caveat of non-Brexit bandwidth, there is fresh impetus for them to engage with the government. 
 
The media has already moved on. But if – and it’s a large one – she has managed to make some of those most opposed to Chequers consider holding their nose and swallowing it, then this could prove to be a significant speech.

 

 

 

Ben Mascall is a director at Headland Consultancy. He was previously Downing Street head of strategic communications.

 

 

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