Ed Balls received a mixed reaction to his pro-EU speech. Photo: Getty
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Ed Balls: "EU exit is the biggest risk to our economy in the next decade"

The shadow chancellor is forthright in his pro-EU membership stance, but how do British businesses feel about this?

I fear that Britain walking out of the EU is the biggest risk to our economy in the next decade. EU exit risks British jobs, trade and investment and the future prosperity of the UK. That is the message I hear from businesses across the country week in week out.

This was Ed Balls’ message in his speech to the BCC (British Chambers of Commerce) conference today.

His firm stance against an EU referendum came in spite of calls from John Longworth – director general of the organisation that represents 92,000 businesses of all sizes across the country – to bring an EU referendum forward to 2016.

Longworth’s urge for government to call the Tories’ promised 2017 referendum a year early is a blow to Labour during a period when it is being attacked from all sides for being anti-enterprise. Its refusal to promise an EU referendum is its key trump card when appealing to British businesses.

To have high-profile business leaders backing an EU referendum – albeit an early one – undermines its unique selling point as the only main party to stand against a vote on our EU membership.

Yet Balls today stood firm in his stance, insisting “we shouldn’t flirt with an exit”, and warning against “setting an arbitrary timetable for a quick referendum”.

He cautioned that, “businesses are deferring and delaying big decisions because of these uncertainties [caused by the prospect of an EU referendum]”, when questioned about the lack of a drop in inward investment since David Cameron promised a referendum. During the Q+A following his speech, he added, “the threat of leaving the EU is the biggest risk” to jobs and investment in Britain this decade.

His announcements provoked a mixed reaction in the audience of business leaders and representatives.

“There was nothing new,” one medium business employer tells me. “We’ve seen it all before, it’s pretty much the same as everything we’ve heard from him before.”

His colleague adds, “It’s all about uncertainty. Without promising a referendum there is still uncertainty, so it’s still uncertain whether they’ll have one or not.”

A group of businesspeople running a small enterprise in the north of England praise the priority Balls is giving to apprenticeships, but are unsure whether his stance against an EU referendum is constructive:

 “You shouldn’t have a referendum if you’re fearful that we’ll be voted out, but I think the English public will vote to stay in. It will be like Scotland; Joe Public will value being part of the EU, you’ve got to trust the public.”

Yet his colleague adds, “I think we need a longer-term view, I think it’s too quick to say let’s call a vote, stay in, sort it out – it’s far too quick.”

One man who runs a small accountancy practice in London is cautiously optimistic about Balls’ commitment to the EU, though is critical of Labour’s communication of this message:

“The dedication to Europe is important. Our clients all have to have Britain in the EU; it would be suicidal for small businesses for agreeing to leave the EU. It’s the only way people will invest.

“Balls’ comments on Europe were good, but not very concrete. His speech wasn’t particularly inspiration, he trotted out a few mediocre well-worn lines, we’ve heard a few of them before. So the support for Europe is there, but they’re not in power, and it’s early days.”

A couple of policy advisers to a big UK firm tell me, “Balls’ message seemed OK, but it’s exactly what you’d expect to hear from him. We have mixed views in our company in that if you call a referendum there is a risk it might go the wrong way, particularly when the newspapers start picking up all the nonsense. Ultimately it’s probably the best approach to oppose a referendum.”

The overriding atmosphere seems to be respect for the shadow chancellor sticking to his opposition to an EU referendum, but an insistence that he conveys that message in a fresh, passionate way, in order to cut through to the public.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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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.