Starmer and Sunak pitch to businesses at CBI conference – what we learnt

Wed 23 Nov 2022
Posted by: Grace Thompson

CBI Conference - Sunak and Starmer

My ears pricked up as I sat in the audience of the CBI Annual Conference.

Did Sir Keir Starmer just reference Peterborough in his keynote speech?

I smile as he goes on to say that there is a need to “spread economic power to the grassroots” when he talks about training and skills in relation to empowering local areas to make their own decisions.

I smile because the Institute of Export & International Trade (IOE&IT) is headquartered in Peterborough and is already part of this empowering mission, helping individuals and businesses gain confidence and skills in exporting.

Of particular note was Starmer’s commitment in his speech to building a new modern industrial strategy. With cheeky flair, he held up a printout of a page on the government’s previous industrial strategy, which said at the top: “archived”.

Starmer’s industrial strategy

His speech included a pledge for a new Industrial Strategy Council, which would sit “outside the political cycle” and would build a plan for both infrastructure and supply chains in fields such as procurement and R&D investment.

He gently quipped: “I know this isn’t the sort of stuff that sets Westminster pulses racing” but called it the “bread and butter of responsible economic management”.

CBI president Brian McBride welcomed Starmer’s modern industrial strategy. Many businesses will now be wondering how this strategy will evolve and are waiting to hear more detail from Labour as a general election draws closer.

Sunak on innovation

There was no mention of industrial strategy in prime minister Rishi Sunak’s speech the day before (21 November), but he had his own key theme: innovation – a word he mentioned 22 times in his speech.

He emphasised the need for a culture of innovation and said the “real prize” of this would be the ability to provide better support to enable smaller businesses to pioneer change.

Picking up on the skills theme, which ran throughout the whole conference, he promised to deliver the Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people of any age retrain and acquire new skills.

Trade relations

Both leaders faced questions from the press in relation to economic migration and trade relations with the EU. Sunak was clear that, under his leadership, the UK wouldn’t align with EU laws in their post-Brexit relationship.

He pointed instead to the opportunities of other trading relationships in fast-growing markets and cited the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

He said tackling illegal immigration was also a priority.

Protocol ‘not working’

Starmer acknowledged that the UK would not be going back to the single market or customs union, but stated strongly that Brexit was not working in its current state. He added that something needed to change as the current deal was “not working well for exports”.

In particular, he referenced the Northern Ireland Protocol as an area that needed a pragmatic approach in order to reduce trade barriers.

Delegate reaction

Speaking to a variety of delegates throughout both days, the verdict on the PM’s speech seemed muted. Some felt that his speech was more targeted towards the public than towards the business audience in the room.

The applause after Sir Keir’s speech spoke for itself. It was prolonged and had to be gently stopped. Following the speech, however, the delegate next to me summed up a sentiment perhaps many businesses feel at the moment: “The thing is, you never know who to trust now.”