UK business leaders dismayed by choice between Johnson and Corbyn

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson addressed the CBI conference. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Several business leaders have warned they feel “disenfranchised” in the election because of their fears about the UK’s future under either of the two main party leaders.

Many delegates appeared to be in a downbeat mood at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)’s annual conference in London on Monday, the first time it has ever taken place in the middle of an election campaign.

Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson all set out their stall in speeches to more than 1,000 representatives of UK firms.

Business chiefs spoken to by Yahoo Finance UK were unimpressed by both Johnson and Corbyn, echoing a warning by CBI direct general Carolyn Fairbairn against “extreme ideologies” on left and right.

“I can’t vote for either of them,” a partner at one multinational firm said bluntly. Another attendee agreed, but said the alternative of voting Lib Dem felt like a “wasted vote.”

One audience member even won a large round of applause as he stood up to declare he felt “disenfranchised by the loss of a political middle ground in this country.”

Johnson’s trustworthiness and Brexit plans, Corbyn’s nationalisation proposals and the scale of both parties’ plans to ramp up public spending were all flagged as significant concerns.

But certain policy announcements found clearer support in the audience, with Helen Dickinson, CEO of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), telling Yahoo Finance UK she welcomed plans to reform a “broken” business rate system.

‘He offered to die in a ditch, but there’s no ditch and he’s not dead’

Johnson’s speech on his plans to “unleash” the economy during a surprise appearance won several rounds of applause and was full of well-received gags.

“This is gold,” chuckled one guest at Johnson’s flamboyant language. Jill Palmer, CEO of Click Travel, agreed it was “very entertaining” but “light on content.”

But deeper issues of trust came up among several delegates sipping tea and coffee afterwards outside the main hall at the venue, an Intercontinental hotel by the O2 Arena in Greenwich, south-east London.

“Boris is a well-documented liar. He offered to die in a ditch rather than extend the Brexit deadline. There’s no ditch and he’s not dead,” said one UK managing partner of a global executive search firm.

READ MORE: Johnson unveils £6bn U-turn on tax cuts for business

He added: “Although he performs well as an entertainer, I thought all his answers to questions offered no commitments, and all the commitments he did give I don’t trust.

“He said ‘f*** business.’ Did he abandon that, or does he still believe that? He will say whatever he needs to say to whoever happens to be listening.”

Marcus Whitehead, managing partner at professional services firm Barnett Waddingham, said Johnson had been “affable,” but agreed: “You know all he ever says is what the audience in front of him wants to hear.”

‘Scared to death’ of a Labour government 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at the CBI annual conference. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

One attendee who called himself a “passionate Remainer” won applause as he announced he would still rather see a no-deal Brexit than have Labour in power because of its “lurch to the left.”

 “I’m scared to death by the prospect of a Labour government in this country,” he said, suggesting Corbyn’s efforts in his earlier speech to shed his ‘anti-business’ image had fallen on deaf ears. 

Another business leader said Corbyn had “admirable views but infantile attitudes,” echoing recent CBI statements that have praised some of his stated ambitions but condemned his plans to realise them.

“Nationalising core infrastructure without apparent analysis or thought is not just dangerous, but amounts to dispossession,” he said, adding: “Bring back Gordon Brown.”

READ MORE: Corbyn denies Labour would ‘crack the foundations of the economy’

The CBI’s Fairbairn used her own speech to warn Labour’s recently announced plan to part-nationalise BT would send “chills through boardrooms.” 

Corbyn’s delivery had a mixed reaction, with one business chief calling it “very engaging” but another saying it felt “very scripted” to avoid causing offence.

“There was none of the excitement or frisson as when Johnson was speaking,” said Whitehead. 

‘The two main parties are just promising a giveaway’

Several business figures said it was unclear how any of the main parties would fund a significant loosening of the purse strings in an election campaign dominated by plans to ramp up public spending.    

Whitehead told Yahoo Finance UK Labour and the Conservatives were “basically just promising a giveaway.”

“I was left unmoved by both, because you end up sitting there thinking ‘you can’t just promise the earth,” he said.

“Where is all the money coming from?” said Palmer on Corbyn’s plans. “I don’t believe that his policies are ultimately economically sustainable.”

‘I don’t want to throw a vote away by voting Lib Dem’

Leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson. Photo: Steve Taylor / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Swinson’s speech appeared to go down well with the crowd, as she claimed her rivals’ politics made the Lib Dems the new “natural party of business.”

But concerns surfaced about the party’s chances and relevance under a first-past-the-post system geared towards its two biggest parties.

Richard Pymm, sales director at engineering distributors Troy UK, said he was surprised to have been “blown away” by Swinson’s speech.

READ MORE: Jo Swinson says Lib Dems would scrap business rates and tax landowners

He said: “She made a lot of sense and spoke with much more clarity and much more authority than the other two. My problem with it is, being a longstanding Tory voter and Remainer, what do I do now?

“I don’t necessarily want to throw a vote away by voting Lib Dem. I believe there are probably hundreds of thousands in my position.”

“I have voted all my life as a one-nation Conservative but I like a lot of what you say,” another audience member told her.

He said he may have to stay with the Conservatives to keep Labour out, but another attendee said they knew an “awful lot of people” giving up their normal allegiances and eyeing up the Lib Dems.

Thumbs up for overhauling business rates and apprenticeships

Helen Dickinson of the BRC focused on the positives, including Johnson’s vow to review and cut business rates and Corbyn’s pledge to reform apprenticeships.

Speaking exclusively to Yahoo Finance UK shortly before Swinson also vowed to reform business rates, Dickinson said firms would welcome reforms to a tax that was “broken and not fit for purpose.”

“What we’re seeing is that business rates as a part of all business taxes have just been growing more quickly than inflation,” said the retail chief.

She welcomed the idea of shaking up the apprenticeship system, saying it had to be part of the solution to changing nature of retail jobs, when it was currently “a hindrance and part of the problem.”

READ MORE: CBI chief warns against ‘extreme ideologies on both sides’