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15th September 2023

Essay: Why government needs to get serious about business

Joanna Thomas

British business and trade will drive the future growth and prosperity of the UK, yet in recent years the relationship between the UK Government and business has been left wanting at best. Business engagement has almost become synonymous with securing donations. Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are attempting to change this perception and be taken seriously again as the party of business. They are genuinely diligent, intelligent leaders who have impressive business and entrepreneurial experience: a PM with an MBA, ex-Goldman Sachs and a Chancellor who founded a successful business.

Meanwhile, the political and economic fallout after the referendum is still playing out. Brexiter or Remainer, the observable, negative effects of Brexit on business are amplified by the aftershocks of the pandemic and we are still refusing to have honest conversations about where we are. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the improvised explosive device that was Trussononics compound the problems.

Global supply chains are still recovering. Working patterns have changed. Inflation is hard to suppress. People feel squeezed. AI will destroy humanity, or save it, depending on your choice of pundit. The UK car industry still risks being unplugged from the electric future, notwithstanding the deal to subsidise a battery factory for Jaguar Land Rover. Steel is in trouble again. Joe Biden’s gigantic Inflation Reduction Act underpins America’s green industrial growth. The EU is responding, but where does that leave the UK? Then there is the rise of China and India. The promised benefits of Brexit remain unicornian for now. We need a credible plan grounded in reality and we need to communicate it.

The scale and complexity of issues facing CEOs is daunting. It is in this environment that business leaders must chart a course to ensure that their companies thrive. They need stability to make long term investment decisions. The very agility and resourcefulness of business sits totally at odds with the rigidity and torpor of Westminster. All too often we hear that the Government does not listen, and that the Government is not available. Things need to change.

The UK’s Business department should have a full-time Secretary of State, but it does not. The incumbent is also the Minister for Women and Equalities, an extremely important, complex, sensitive and unbelievably time-consuming brief in its own right, that arguably deserves to have its own Ministry. The message to business is all wrong. Is business a priority or not?

We need a paradigm shift in how the Government engages business and without doubt the PM recognises this, but we need to go further within Westminster to support him. We have some exceptional Ministers, but we should in the future place a premium on ensuring that all in positions of power have the passion and experience needed for such an important task. We need to be able to “speak business”, to know the culture of international business and SMEs alike; to understand the diplomacy required to navigate sensitivities and build relationships and to have a sense of the technologies of the future. We need a huge injection of emotional intelligence and a commitment to face the facts about where we are, with courage and humility. We must, as a matter of urgency, acknowledge and tackle the structural problems that Brexit has created for British businesses.

On a more superficial level but equally important, basic etiquette would be standard. There would be respect for CEO diaries, events would not be cancelled last minute after months of planning, and, if unavoidable, then followed up. Invitations would be sent out with plenty of notice and would be professional in delivery. We should not have to say that basic courtesy needs to be observed; the Government needs to reply to correspondence in good time and receive and return phone calls.

Steering groups offer valuable insights from the ground into the issues being faced and provide viable solutions, but unless these insights are taken to the top and heard, time is lost and decisions made without sector input. Alongside these we should have frequent in-depth conversations with business leaders and not just representative bodies. We must recognise that business does not sleep during the day, that some of the best networking, intelligence gathering, deals and decisions are made over breakfast. The Department for Business needs to be open for business from early until late.

The Government must be curious, willing to ask big, open questions and to hear answers that we might not always like: to show humility and patience enough to listen and to learn, to inform policy-making. We must then act with speed to find solutions, not dither in picking up on issues raised months earlier, such as the VAT Retail Export Scheme. We need to act in real time. Even the simplest of solutions can be complicated, though, if the political will is not there to fix it – or more importantly the will to listen to critical voices. It is not enough to keep admitting “we do not know what business is about” and “we want to hear from you”. It is novel, even charming at first, but the act wears thin if the fact is we really do not know, nor really care. Business leaders will become impatient when it is apparent that we are not learning, that incomprehensible political maneuvering trumps urgent business needs and that we are merely paying lip service. Business leaders are not stupid. Businesses want to know how we will now sort the customs and border irritations for goods, how we will tackle business rates, the skills shortages that arise from the lack of labour mobility and myriad other problems created by questionable policy decisions. We need genuine dialogue with give and take from both sides, not tone-deaf political monologue, game-playing and supercilious posturing. Being given only high level policy answers and not practical solutions merely frustrates and further undermines the Government’s credibility.

If Westminster could run more professionally in certain areas and less emotionally, we may get somewhere. For the sake of the country, the approach must be more cohesive and businesslike, and the structures should survive changes of Government. We need to look at where we want to be in five or ten years’ time.  What does that look like? What is the vision?

I have seen evidence of ground-breaking approaches to helping some of the biggest global companies to define the future of their businesses. Effective questions are asked using systems design and creative thinking approaches to tackle the most complex issues, from how boards can best imagine the future to define strategy, to how to redesign production processes and supply chains. Stakeholder mapping is utilised to understand what’s really going on in a system, to map the “value exchange” between parts to see what’s working and what needs to change. The purpose is to find a competitive edge, to do better thinking and to produce better strategic options.

These approaches are also used to help leaders from emerging economy governments and multilateral organisations to design and test policy. And yet Whitehall rarely taps into such British expertise and instead continues to work in antediluvian ways that Victorian civil servants would recognise.

We should use the best available, cutting-edge techniques in systems design to explore the issues we face, to imagine the successful and prosperous future we wish to create and then objectively work out what needs to change. We need to take a truly collaborative approach that works throughout Whitehall and across departments and sectors. We owe it to the country to think beyond any particular ideology and the electoral cycle, as we require long-term solutions that actually work. How else are we going to tackle climate change, to get beyond net zero and towards a sustainable, regenerative future? How else are we going to stay globally competitive?

We also need a shift in our political culture. It is no secret that successive Secretaries of State have been constantly planning the downfall of whomever is the current Prime Minister and focusing on their own positioning, using whatever brief they have at hand and to the detriment of that brief. Such an environment is unsettling and unsustainable. A great figure from the world of politics who served in a past Cabinet once told me that it used to be, when serving in high offices of State, Ministers focused on the job at hand and stopped playing politics. You served the Government and the country – not yourself. Tellingly they added, “There wasn’t time”. What has changed so much in our political culture that rarely does this seem to be the case today? The instability of the last seven years has fuelled the dreams of those who wish to reach No 10 and so the focus has shifted to personal ambition and away from the day job. The political reflex is to rubbish criticism while scrambling to deny any personal culpability and find fall guys to take the hit, usually officials who cannot defend themselves, or even colleagues in Parliament. All this should stop.

In contrast, when it comes to business, the Government should respect the importance and personal expertise of backbench MPs and include them more in the process of engagement and consultation. They have deep local empathy for and knowledge of the culture of their constituencies, and can offer valuable insight into the needs of their businesses. Visits, issues and ideas can filter through this channel and data can be gathered to inform policy making.

There are very impressive and good people working at the Department of Business and Trade, Ministers and civil servants alike. Talk about “The Blob” is disrespectful, combative and counterproductive. The process of government is clunky and slow but that is from all sides. In contrast, I found hard working, impartial, bright and diligent people who care deeply about our country; people who need leadership and to be encouraged and allowed to think big, but also who need to be heard and valued for the expertise they bring. I am an advocate of a more compassionate, open and collaborative approach to the conduct of government.

A senior political figure once said to me, “The trouble with you, Joanna, is that you see everyone as a friend, someone to work with, whereas I think, ‘How can I kill them?’” I was astounded. How can anything be achieved if the people in our politics behave in this self-interested way, playing a zero-sum game? This country, our people, this nation can only be protected and developed with teamwork. If we are constantly undoing the good of others for self-gain, how does that serve? Look around, this is how we have ended up in such trouble.

There is much that is wrong with Westminster and how it works for business. Engagement with businesses now runs the risk of being about populating a personal address book as a hedge against election defeat, rather than driving business growth. In addition, departmental strategic planning should not be sacrificed due to political pre-election inertia, or the business department risks entering a state of suspended animation, tying the hands of exasperated officials.

We are going through a very difficult time, but I believe that good, competent, committed, creative and courageous people can change things, to stimulate new ideas, to help our businesses to thrive and to drive wealth creation. I have worked with many such great people from all sides of politics, and from the civil service and from business. We need people such as these at the top, making the decisions and supporting the Prime Minister if Government is to get serious about business and drive the future growth and prosperity of the UK.


Joanna Thomas was a Special Adviser to the Secretary of State, Department for Business and Trade until recently. Before, she spent over a decade working in Parliament and in politics. Joanna has a background in business and experience of broadcast television in the US

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