The last year has been almost universally grim for business. Forced closure, redundancies, huge changes in customer behaviour, pressure to keep staff and customers safe – the list goes on. All compounded by uncertainty about when this will end.
For many Corporate and Public Affairs teams, we have reached the anniversary of the start of near constant crisis. But in and amongst the panic stations, there has been an upside to these unprecedented times for some – a far closer working relationship with government.
The gravity of the crisis has meant that many businesses that previously struggled to get a hearing found themselves in regular dialogue with ministers and officials throughout 2020. Government upweighted and prioritised its business engagement processes. We saw a shift to more regular engagement including through rapidly established groups, such as the Food Resilience Forum, designed to triage issues and plan ahead. This has been supported by an open and responsive No10 Business Engagement Unit, which has been willing to listen and offer rapid clarification where needed. Business has certainly had a seat at the table.
Of course, this has not been the experience of all sectors and there are those in many industries including airlines, tourism and hospitality that feel the Government has listened, but not understood, the true scale of the challenge they face. However, broadly business has had a far greater say in shaping regulation and support packages than before the crisis. Arguably they have had a far greater say than parliamentarians, with the Government’s reliance on secondary legislation limiting opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny.
Across every industry COVID has reset the mark for government intervention, levels of business support and the speed of policymaking. Whether or not businesses have seen these shifts benefit them in the past year, the precedent this has set will certainly benefit engagement in the future.
However, as we pass the anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown, we may be starting to see a shift away from the close working between government and business. The appointment of Kwasi Kwarteng as Business Secretary was broadly welcomed as recognition that Alok Sharma could not devote the time needed to both COP26 and the immediate challenges facing businesses. Personally decisive and quick to be enthused by ideas, Kwarteng comes with many qualities to endear himself to business leaders.
Yet in the first few weeks in the role, reports surfaced of a different tone in engaging with CEOs. The British Retail Consortium expressed concerns that the new Secretary of State was not as sympathetic to their concerns as they hoped. The immediate leaking of Kwarteng’s request for details of the meeting to not be leaked highlighted a rocky first encounter.
Kwarteng has since disbanded the Industrial Strategy Council. A natural free marketeer, Kwarteng would have always been resistant to the idea of an industrial strategy and has pointed instead to the Treasury’s Plan for Growth as the new blueprint for driving the recovery. Yet it has raised some questions about avenues for senior external advice into BEIS, and more broadly what does the future of the department look like with no industrial strategy?
Other signs continue to suggest that securing time for CEOs with leading ministers or officials is becoming trickier across departments. At the same time, the tone from government is moving away from doing all it can to keep businesses alive, to businesses having to play, and pay, their part in funding the recovery. The Chancellor was very open in his Budget about the trade-off he now sees in the relationship; “it is fair and necessary to ask them [business] to contribute to our recovery.”
Corporate Affairs teams would also do well to keep a close eye on public sentiment around the recovery. A recent poll showing the public wants to see more tax paid by tech companies was swiftly met with a guarantee from HMT that this will be a priority at the upcoming G7 discussions. It remains to be seen where an image conscious Chancellor will side if public opinion turns more decisively against large corporations.
A drifting of the partnership between government and business is at odds with the Treasury’s stated aim to focus on jobs, jobs, jobs. It is clearly in the interests of both sides to maintain a close working relationship if the Plan for Growth is going to able to spark the recovery that both sides need it to.
With this in mind, Public Affairs teams should be making the case for why government should continue to regularly hear from your business. Can you reframe and keep pandemic enabled engagement opportunities? Or do you need to recognise that the door is no longer wide-open for direct engagement and instead you will need to keep it ajar by mobilising media or public opinion to demonstrate your importance to government?
As in the rest of our lives, there will be some things caused by the pandemic that we would like to keep for the long term. A close, collaborative relationship between business and government should certainly be one of these.