Business leaders and government officials plan to set up a task force to help companies adapt to life outside the EU next year, according to Carolyn Fairbairn, CBI director-general.
In her last interview before standing down from the employers’ organisation next week, Dame Carolyn said the initiative showed that ties between government and business had largely mended after several years of frosty relations after the 2016 EU referendum.
Talks were under way between the CBI, which opposed leaving the EU, and the Cabinet Office about creating a Brexit task force to help companies cope with changes after the UK leaves the single market at the end of the year. “We want nothing more than Brexit to succeed,” she said.
She also urged No 10 to “throw its doors open” to work with businesses on recovering from the pandemic. She pointed to the coronavirus support schemes that business groups had helped the Treasury to develop, such as the furlough programme.
“This does not need to be a ‘go it alone’ government when so many want it to succeed. You can become a bunker too easily [in No 10],” she said.
Business collaboration needed to be structural, not random, she added, with “channels of communication that are transparent, open and regular”.
On Tuesday, chancellor Rishi Sunak held a meeting with business leaders — including from the CBI — where he stressed the importance of protecting jobs. It followed a call with Boris Johnson, prime minister, last week, where his comments around the opportunities of Brexit were seen by those on the call as clumsy given the strain that many smaller companies face when preparing for uncertain trading conditions.
Dame Carolyn said that the UK faced a “massively challenged economy over the autumn and winter”, with companies still planning job losses despite the chancellor’s latest package of support. Brexit would “add some strain in the short run”.
She said that it was disappointing that the UK had not struck a free trade agreement with the EU with only two months to go until the end of the Brexit transition period.
She called for an economic plan for growth to stimulate investment, focusing on areas such as training and skills to digital and infrastructure building. The CBI has advocated a number of measures, such as productivity vouchers to help small businesses invest, to help this. “We need to shift from job support to job creation.”
After leaving the CBI next month, Dame Carolyn said she would take six months off but then likely return to a role in the private sector.
Dame Carolyn described “five extremely challenging years” for business during her fixed term tenure leading the CBI, dominated by the “politics and economics of anger about inequality and fairness”.
Brexit, she added, had sparked “a sense of frustration and anger”. The CBI had lobbied against leaving the EU in 2016, which angered Brexit-supporting politicians in Westminster.
Relations between business and government had broken down during the period, she said. “We hadn’t expected No 10 to withdraw from business. There was a sense in government that business were a part of the problem.”
This was exacerbated, she said, by a “political paralysis” that led to the economy being “put on pause”. But the coronavirus crisis had at least helped mend these relations, she said, as businesses helped support government efforts to save jobs and lives.
Additional reporting by George Parker