Monday 01 June 2020

We can best navigate the economic storm with a new business council

The UK economy is being assaulted by a combination of unprecedented challenges. Plunging markets and surging unemployment due to a global pandemic are coupled with the nation’s looming departure from the EU, which risks progressive disintegration of the national regulatory framework and disruption of access to traditional goods and services markets. 

Navigating an economic storm of such magnitude will require the Government to be adaptable to the current circumstances; to shift with such agility requires a Government with its ear to the ground of the economy. That is why I called publicly on Sunday in the Telegraph for the swift formation of a business council.

A business council, able and empowered to guide Government towards implementing fundamental reforms and diverting resources where they are needed, will be a vital tool in the months ahead.

Transforming the UK into an export-led economy through establishing a national export fund or increasing productivity to improve competitiveness through slashing regulatory framework to release a funding pipeline are just a few examples of the myriad of policies that should be pursued to ensure the UK’s success as an independent nation in a post-Covid global marketplace. 

Had the Government had access to a business council made up of some of the brightest leaders across industry, it might have been able to respond more expeditiously to the challenges posed by procurement and distribution, particularly in the PPE space.

Had the PM been able to call on senior business advisors to work with the relevant ministers in the early days of the crisis, logistics and procurement problems could perhaps have been minimised.  This is a retrospective example, but looking ahead, we can see enormous necessity for this business council in reviving our economy and safeguarding our national health.

The structure of the council would see a true partnership between business and Government: Relevant ministers would have an attaché from the business council suited to the particular task at hand, on a rotational basis.  As an example: If the Secretary of Health could have had the Chief Operations Officer of Asda as a partner, the logistical and procurement issues around PPE and test kits could have been solved and delivery seamlessly, swiftly and with professional flair.

UK business was in a position to source 60 per cent of the required equipment components within the first month, if only it had been asked.  Such partnerships are only possible if ongoing coordination between business and Government exists. We must not continue to pass up the opportunity to improve productivity and delivery, simply because well-meaning but misguided civil servants see any attempt to build a relationship with business from within Government as a threat. 

In any crisis situation, when there is only one right decision that has to be made quickly, every UK Government minister should have access to outstanding business expertise. A business council bringing together senior business executives with real-life experience and outstanding logistics, procurement and international trade skills can deliver this level of support – in contrast to lobby groups and associations such as the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce, which have turned into heavy, overly politicised and bureaucratised structures far removed from the business reality.

Much like the humble civil servant.  We need to see this as an opportunity. This taskforce would provide the apparatus for private sector experience to be leveraged within public sector decision making and supply chain provision, mobilising the enormous British industry to defeat the virus and safeguard our society and our economy.

The business council will foster international ties, as well. Due to the ongoing crisis happening the year when the Government and UK businesses were meant to prepare for Brexit with trade deals and supply chain reinforcement, they have instead had to focus on supplying the nation during lockdown.

By the time businesses will be able to re-open completely, a no-deal Brexit will be only a few months away. And while a Brexit extension could be negotiated to ensure UK businesses and the Government have the time to prepare trade links, supply chains, and contingency plans, a business council would be vital in either case in providing the Government with political air cover and expert advice on the Brexit timeline through cross-border cross-business lobbying. It is in the interests of the UK and EU economies to do so.

My fellow industry representatives and I are prepared to answer the Government’s call; I am eager to continue the discussions with Number 10 towards finalizing the roster and rota of such a council. We must, however, do so with all haste – as the perfect storm is coming.


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