The coalition is still failing business

The government's enterprise bill provides no evidence of a clear strategic direction.

Today the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill receives its second reading in the House of Commons.  It was trailed in the days before the Queen’s Speech as the centrepiece of a legislative programme by the government built on “growth, justice and constitutional reform”.  In reality, it is anything but.

The bill is a good illustration of the weaknesses and divisions at the heart of the government. The most pressing issue facing Britain is the fact that the economy has gone into reverse. The Prime Minister and Chancellor may wish to hide behind the fact that there is a eurozone crisis, or that we had too many days off because of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, or that the weather is slightly too cold or too hot, or – at the moment – too much rain. But everyone else seems to realise, with the exception of the occupants of 10 and 11 Downing Street, that their insistence on cutting spending and raising taxes too far and too fast, and thereby choking off demand in the domestic economy, has plunged this country back into a recession made in Downing Street. What we need is a proper plan for jobs and growth to get the economy going again – like Labour’s five-point plan.

Only in the last few days, President Obama has implicitly criticised the government’s stance, noting that it is a lot harder to rein in deficits and debt if your economy is not growing.  Tellingly, he singled out Angela Merkel and François Hollande for “working to put in place a growth agenda alongside responsible fiscal plans”. No such praise for David Cameron or George Osborne.

There is no magic piece of legislation that would conjure up growth. But the case for a British Investment Bank needs to be examined, as Labour is doing.  Reforms to allow firms to better plan for the long-term, invest in new plant and skills and ensuring that there are more, better paid jobs so the economy works for more people, more of the time would also improve Britain’s competitiveness and allow us to get back into growth much more quickly.

In the longer-term, the bill provides no evidence of a clear strategic direction.  Business is crying out for a stable policy environment to allow them to invest and plan for the long-term; a proper industrial strategy, based on the long-term to encourage sustainable growth, but this bill has failed to provide this.

We have in the bill the establishment of the Green Investment Bank, a welcome initiative that Labour announced back in 2010, but it won’t have powers to lever in private money to boost green investment until 2016. 

There are reforms designed to make executive pay more accountable and transparent, but ministers are refusing to implement all of the sensible recommendations from the High Pay Commission such as putting an employee representative on remuneration committees – and now it appears that Vince Cable is seeking to water down provisions for annual shareholder votes on executive pay.

The bill includes reforms to employment legislation. There are some changes on tribunals which are worth exploring but, in a nod and a wink to the Tory right, the government is hinting that it could bring forward amendments during the bill’s passage to put Beecroft’s fire at will manifesto on the statute book, alongside other proposals within the bill to water down the rights we enjoy at work.

Cable lamented in his leaked letter to the Prime Minister that the government has lacked a compelling vision on where it wants to take the country’s economy by 2020.  With this bill had an opportunity to rectify this and provide the strategic vision which British business is crying out for, leaving a lasting legacy that would boost economic recovery and secure Britain’s competitiveness in the next decade. Faced with the roadblocks to reform in Downing Street, it is a great shame this opportunity has been missed.

The Chancellor continues to "hide behind the fact that there is a eurozone crisis". Photograph: Getty Images.

Iain Wright is the shadow minister for competitiveness and enterprise.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.