Business leaders have urged the ruling Conservatives to stop the infighting and focus on reviving the British economy after a chaotic party conference in Birmingham.
Prime minister Liz Truss used her speech to delegates on Wednesday to proclaim that “she loved business” and would back it “to the hilt”. But multiple business leaders told the FT that the event underlined how unstable the party had become after 12 years in power.
While welcoming policies to cut taxes and regulations, they also expressed concern these could go too far and questioned how long Truss might survive.
Engagement with businesses at the four-day event was also questioned, with several business people comparing access to senior ministers unfavourably against the well-drilled conference held by Labour last week.
“The Conservatives feel like they are dashing off in their own direction and not engaging with what business really wants. It feels like it’s all coming from the rightwing of the party,” said one business leader, who described the mood of the conference as “terminal . . . and some here are adding ‘deservedly so.’”
Craig Beaumont, chief of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, said that there had been little of policy substance at the conference. “We need some stability from all this chopping and changing,” he added.
An energy firm boss added that there was a “real desire for them to be realistic and pragmatic rather than idealistic . . . Sterling, interest rates and the economy would all benefit if the government listened to calls for fiscal prudence without exacerbating societal issues.”
Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland supermarket, said the “political machinations” of the week were a “huge distraction” for his customers who needed further support through the economic downturn.
He added engagement between businesses such as Iceland and the party were good and “generally, the party [seemed] to be moving in the right direction — the decision to drop the 45p tax cut was the right one”.
But he warned: “I believe in the supply side reforms and push for growth but it needs to be balanced with help for those in society who need it.”
Other business figures agreed that relations were strong with the Tory party and that there had been good levels of outreach.
Iain Anderson, chair of H/Advisors Cicero and a former government adviser, said many companies found the focus on growth very welcome. He added that “investors and business now urgently [needed] to hear the detail of the government’s fiscal underpinning”.
Tory donor Alexander Temerko welcomed the “focus on massively developing opportunities for businesses, and attracting investors and investment into the UK economy”. But he was “not entirely sure that the government has a long-term stabilisation plan for the pound, nor necessarily a detailed programme to build export potential with a weak pound”.
The boss of a professional services firm said politics was becoming a distraction. “It’s my fourth prime minister and sixth chancellor and these two won’t be here by Christmas. They keep making plans about things that we don’t want.”
The Conservative party hosted a series of business events on Monday that cost close to £3,000 per ticket. However, some complained about the lack of time spent with the prime minister and chancellor.
One senior lobbyist said: “It seems like they’ve forgotten their manners — it’s like a family wedding where there’s been a tremendous row and they can no longer be polite to the guests.” Another senior Tory who advises businesses said the Conservatives had not engaged with companies at the conference as well as Labour.
Some business delegates were more forgiving, pointing out that Tory ministers were more distracted than Labour because they were firefighting multiple real-world crises.
A Tory aide said there had been outreach to business, pointing to the first ever “SME day” at conference on Sunday that gave smaller businesses direct access to party figures.
One senior business figure had no complaints. “If I listed the number of advisers and ministers I’ve met this week I would lose count.”
But veteran Tory lobbyist Peter Bingle said the party had committed “hara-kiri,” adding: “Corporate affairs directors will be reconnecting with their Labour contacts and drafting a paper for their bosses entitled ‘Dealing with Truss, preparing for Starmer’.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne