The Business Secretary calls on the Confederation of British Industry to support the Prime Minister’s European Union renegotiation.
Thank you, John for inviting me, and thank you for accommodating my change in schedule.
Congratulations to both Paul Drechsler for his appointment as President, and to Carolyn Fairbairn for her appointment as Director General.
I’m sure you’re going to enjoy your terms, and I’m certainly looking forward to working with you both.
Travelling here tonight I realised that I’m the first Conservative Business Secretary to address a CBI get-together since Ian Lang.
It’s been far too long, but it’s certainly good to be back.
A few things have changed since Ian’s day.
I’m fairly sure that he would never have attended a CBI dinner immediately after getting back from Glastonbury!
It seems you can take the minister out of culture, but you can’t take culture out of the minister…
The audience here tonight couldn’t be more different from the crowd at Worthy Farm.
One is all well-off, middle-aged businessmen enjoying expensive food and discussing their stock portfolios.
And the other is CBI members and their guests!
Of course, the cultural habits of the Business Secretary are not the only thing to have changed of late.
Just look at the economy.
In 2010, we faced a stark challenge – to pull Britain back from the brink.
The country was sinking under a host of unwanted records:
…the worst recession in almost a century…
… the biggest budget deficit since the Second World War…
…the world’s largest bank bailout.
Five years on, the picture is very different.
We’ve gone from a record-breaking recession to record-breaking employment.
The deficit, as a proportion of GDP, has been cut in half.
Our economy is growing faster than anywhere else in the G7.
And the UK has created more jobs in the last 5 years than the rest of the EU put together.
Now, it’s traditional for politicians to stand up at events and claim all the credit.
To boast about the economic miracle performed by the government.
And it’s true that we’ve done a lot to help.
Cutting £10 billion of regulation…
… lowering taxes…
…slashing the deficit.
But the real hero is British business.
And when I say ‘British business’ I’m not just talking about a handful of senior executives.
I mean everyone who has played a role in turning the economy around.
Employers and employees…
…huge corporations and sole traders…
…retailers and manufacturers and everything in between.
It was business that did the hard work…
…business that delivered for Britain…
…business that changed millions of lives for the better in every corner of the country.
So thanks to people like you, in 2015 the task before us is very different.
Our challenge now is to secure the progress we’ve made.
To build on it, to make Britain a more productive nation and the best place in the world to start and grow a business.
That’s why I’m going to pass the Enterprise Bill, cutting red tape freeing businesses.
That’s why we’re creating 3 million new apprenticeships, giving British workers the skills they need to compete in a global market.
That’s why we’re delivering reliable and affordable energy for businesses and homes…
…freezing National Insurance contributions for employers and employees…
… and providing free child care for millions of working parents.
And that’s why we’re negotiating a better deal for Britain in Europe.
I know this is something the CBI desperately wants to see.
You have never been shy about highlighting the ways in which the EU can hamper and undermine British business.
Here’s 3 quotes:
“The likely effect of many of Brussels’ current proposals will be to damage the UK’s prospects for growth.”
That was John, speaking in 2011.
“We don’t want a situation where smaller firms are saddled with poorly thought-out EU regulations which impede their ability to grow.”
So said Katja in 2013.
“The European Parliament’s decision … is bad for business … it will make it harder for firms to grow and export across Europe.”
That was Sean McGuire, your man in Brussels, in a statement made 4 years ago.
These are all valid complaints, all concerns I share.
They’re exactly the kind of points the CBI should be making to defend the interests of its members.
And they’re exactly the kind of issues this government is tackling during the current renegotiation.
So imagine my surprise last month, when I attended an event much like this one and heard that the CBI thinks the UK should remain in the European Union no matter what.
That the people of Britain should vote to stay in regardless of whether or not the Prime Minister wins the concessions that British business so badly needs.
That none of the concerns the CBI has raised over the years are actually that significant.
Of course you’re entirely free to come to that conclusion.
But does it really make sense to say, so early in the process:
… ‘the rules of this club need to change…
… but don’t worry, we’ll always be members no matter what happens?’
You’re some of Britain’s most respected, most successful business leaders.
You know how negotiation works.
You wouldn’t dream of sitting down at the start of a merger or acquisition and…
…like a poker player showing his hand to the table…
… announcing exactly what terms you were prepared to accept.
It doesn’t work in the boardroom and it won’t work in Brussels.
And that’s not just my view.
The Guardian is hardly known for its pro-business, Eurosceptic editorial line.
But even its financial editor warned that the CBI’s position “will be exploited by any half-alert EU politician or Brussels bureaucrat.”
Now it would be easy to argue that a great many EU politicians and Brussels bureaucrats are not even half alert!
But the handful that are will have seized upon the CBI’s stance and will use it to fight the Prime Minister all the way as he seeks lasting reform.
And make no mistake, the reforms we seek are the reforms your members need.
An expanding market that liberalises new sectors will benefit British entrepreneurs.
An EU open to trade, concluding ambitious deals with America, China and Japan will benefit all British businesses and consumers.
And, as the Prime Minister has said before, this renegotiation will not just benefit Britain.
It will benefit the whole of the EU too.
So we agree, we want to see reform.
We will make the case to European governments.
But we hope you will make the case to European businesses, striking alliances for reform, calling on other governments to back change.
Look at the stance taken by the Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce.
Like the CBI, the IoD and BCC are great cheerleaders for British business.
Like the CBI, they want the renegotiation process to deliver genuine reform.
But unlike the CBI, they’re waiting until that process is complete before recommending how to vote in the referendum.
When the IoD polled its members, 60% said that staying in the EU will only benefit their businesses IF there are major reforms to employment and company law.
And as the BCC’s John Longworth said last week, “The business community cannot make a decision on the EU until it knows … what will be negotiated”.
For decades the CBI has been a champion of British business, and any friend of British business is a friend of mine.
But best friends are not afraid to be straight with each other.
So I’d urge everyone at the CBI, including your new President and new Director General, to think very carefully about what you want to achieve in the months ahead.
The Prime Minister’s goal is Britain in a reformed EU with the issues British people want resolved, fixed for good.
And Brussels is sitting up and paying attention.
We have a unique opportunity to build a better European Union.
A European Union that genuinely delivers for British business and for British workers.
That allows your companies to trade and grow and create jobs freely…
…breaking down the bureaucratic barriers that the CBI has fought so hard against for so long.
This opportunity has only come about thanks to the deadline of the in/out referendum.
And it is only the possibility of a British exit that will allow us to deliver the change we need.
So ask yourselves, do you want to be part of this process?
Do you want to seize this chance to fix what doesn’t work so we can continue to enjoy what does?
Do you want to take real action to tackle the problems you have done so much to highlight?
The concessions the Prime Minister is seeking will not easily be won.
No politicians, no bureaucracy, ever gave up power without a fight, and the European Union is no different.
Those of us who want change must work together.
We must speak with one voice.
And we must be unafraid to say that we could walk away if Brussels refuses to compromise.
The reform your members have long demanded is almost within our grasp.
With the CBI’s support, I know we can reach out and bring it home for the people of Britain.