CBI conference 2012 as it happened

Alex Stevenson By

We've been live-blogging from the CBI conference in central London, as Cameron, Miliband, Boris and co courted Britain's business leaders.

16:45 - Final thoughts

Four political speeches, four very different approaches to the British economy in 2012. It's been amazing how little the word "growth" has actually been talked about; there has been a truce declared on the recession and the threat of a triple-dip. Business leaders want to boost confidence by drawing attention away from the UK's stagnant economy. David Cameron dealt with this by resorting to jingoistic war metaphors and talk of the UK fighting an economic war against - well, everyone. Vince Cable revealed his own personal battle is with the Treasury. Ed Miliband's target was the European Union; he is trying to save Labour's pro-European position from the rising tide of euroscepticism threatening to engulf his party. Finally, this afternoon, Boris managed to pack out the hall in the "graveyard slot". He put in another classic Boris performance, which included a couple of fierce jabs against the government's immigration and Heathrow policies. As you can read about more below...

Boris' speech: Fighting govt on immigration and Heathrow

15:25 - Back from the conference hall after the Boris Q+A - and the main stylistic difference to note is that, unlike Ed and Dave, Boris doesn't need to bother stepping out behind the podium to appear relaxed. He has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand in a way neither of the two party leaders could ever hope to achieve.

On one occasion this actually got a little cruel. When asked an awkward question about his election campaign manager Lynton Crosby, who is going to work for the Conservatives' 2015 campaign, he attacked the questioner for not listening to the section on immigration in his speech. "Did you allow your attention to wander?" Boris asked. "Everyone else was following like a bloodhound!" Boris somehow manages to make this feel like gentle ribbing, when he's actually doing a very deft piece of question-dodging. There were no other really tricky questions for the mayor. He said he would take five questions, and so he did. "I keep all my promises!" he barked.

Boris felt like more of a politician than the earlier speakers, constantly trumpeting his achievements. For a politician in election mode this is a fine characteristic. But many months have passed since Crosby helped him back into City Hall for another four more years. It actually started to sound a little bit hackneyed today. At a party conference, trumpeting achievements to boost morale, such a speech goes down like a storm. It might not be quite so useful here.

15:06 - "London will win if we think global and open ourselves to the world," he concludes. That's that! I'm running down to pay attention to the Q+A now - will be back shortly.

15:04 - There's not much of this speech left - what's written down, anyway. Boris is enjoying this, inserting the word "pullulating" just to keep us all on our toes. "You should never underestimate this city's protean ability to find new markets," Boris continues. One of our exports to America is "Piers Morgan". A lot of this extra colour is actually in his version of the speech - it's not all off-the-cuff.

15:01 - London can be the "world capital of the Brits" if Boris' Thames Estuary option gets the green light, he suggests. "I believe the lessons of the Olympics is we should be brave and we should go for it," he urges. Transferring political capital from one to another? In terms of following the speech - well, he's spinning this one out more and more and more...

14:59 - After a quick request for stamp duty to be changed in the autumn statement, Boris moves on to another hugely controversial area: transport policy. Here we go, then. The mayor waxes lyrical about "warm Atlantic zephyrs" but then ends up having to spend 15 minutes circling over Croydon - a "beautiful" place, he points out. This is way off piste. But he's coming to his point - that a third runway at Heathrow is simply a terrible idea. Britain has a "historic chance to do the right thing". He says there are three decent options identified by TfL that are much more preferable.

14:55 - And then, out of nowhere, comes a massive attack on the government's immigration policy. He says the UK shouldn't be "slamming the door on all non-UK nationals". He continues: 

Of course we should keep out people who will be  a drain on the state, but we need software experts to be able to get here in days rather than months or years. We shouldn't have London's arts barons having to cancel concerts because the prima ballerina is stuck in Minsk.

14:54 - Now Boris is addressing tax-avoiding big corporations. He hands "Google and co" an ultimatum: either change their tax arrangements or do more to take on out-of-work 18- to 24-year-olds. An interesting idea...

14:51 - Bankers are licking their wounds "behind the stuccoed walls of their Notting Hill schlosses", Boris continues. It's actually quite interesting following his speech with the text next to me - not sure I've seen a Boris speech before. He broadly sticks to the message, but allows himself to riff on the more florid bits of the text as and when the opportunity arises. His latest improvisation was on Andy Murray's tennis playing abilities - and his tax arrangements.

14:49 - There are too many asides for me to get too far ahead of Boris, so I'm just going to pay attention to the speech as he delivers it. It looks like it's more of the same, anyway... Then Boris calls for the "age of austerity to come to an end". He wants a new "age of enterprise". The much-expected defence of the City is now underway... 

14:45 - Ah! Just been handed a copy of the speech. He calls the Francis Crick centre, an animal research centre on the Euston Road, "Europe's largest rat abattoir". He says London's lawyers "apply the necessary balm" if one oligarch has to sue another oligarch. He boasts that "London's mothers produce more babies than ever." This is, in short, classic Boris.

14:43 - Boris Johnson totters on to the stage, saying he's delighted to be in the "graveyard slot" - getting in an early dig by saying more people have turned out to see him than turned out for the entirety of the police and crime commissioner elections... that is officially laugh number one...

14:15 - Coming up shortly, mayor of London Boris Johnson will be the last of our Big Four speakers today. I haven't been briefed on what he's going to say, alas, so this is all going to come as a nice surprise. In the meantime, I advise you to inspect this little compilation of some of Boris' most rousing moments - courtesy of none other than the CBI...

Miliband's speech: The case for Europe

14:05 - And finally for this section of our coverage, here's the verdict of the CBI's director-general John Cridland: “Business welcomes the emphasis Ed Miliband put on Europe – the issue of the coming months. The CBI is a Euro pragmatist, Britain must be part of the single market in a reformed Europe.”

14:00 - So to my little chit-chats afterwards with conference delegates. Their take on Miliband's speech is, broadly, impressed. They thought he spoke well, without notes. One businessman from an engineering company said this Miliband was a vast improvement on the one on offer two years ago. He said that the choice of topic, the EU, was "not everybody's highest priority", however.

Not all agreed. Someone working for an organisation representing wholesale banks in Europe said that views on Europe can be dislocated - individuals can have eurosceptic views, while organisations remain broadly pro-European. He would like Britain to treat the EU game like a chessboard, in the same way France does - "playing our pieces to win the game". A CBI employee, who was extra strenuous in her bid for anonymity, said that most businesses see the value of Europea, despite there being issues for some relating to immigration.

Most though, simply appreciated Miliband's ability to push a specific message without equivocation. Robert Atkin, managing director of a company which "manufactures buildings", complimented the Labour leader's "passion for Europe". Best of all, he added, "he didn't plug Labour too much."

13:55 - Delegates are now indulging in a bite to eat. I've been having just the mildest dose of technical trouble, but never mind. Here's my report from the balcony overlooking the conference floor on Ed Miliband's Q+A session. In policy terms this was broadly unremarkable - apart from the eyebrow-raising suggestion that "some form of English or maths" should be compulsory for all up to the age of 18. What was more significant was the delivery: relaxed, informal, off-the-cuff. In fact this is exactly the formula Miliband used for his Q+A session at the Labour party conference earlier this autumn. He is especially charming when it comes to who to pick for questions (I've been favouring the right rather than the left, uncharacteristically). He has a concern for gender balance, but is prepared to overlook this ("sir, you are not a lady, but you can ask a question"). Written down, they may not sound like much. But they are enough to impress this audience with informality.

13:03 - Given that Miliband is doing this speech off-the-cuff, all those quotes distributed beforehand are not necessarily word-for-word exactly what he's said in the speech. But they get the message across. On the section about Britain being shut outside the EU, for example, Miliband was supposed to briefly make the point that other countries would be making decisions that affect the UK, when British ministers would be shut out. In the actual speech, Miliband got a bit carried. They wouldn't just be in the room, he says. They'd be in the room  "eating our lunch". Bizarre... that prompts a few bemused laughs from the watching journalists.

12:57 - Miliband is now waxing lyrical about the benefits to Britain of enlargement of the European Union - maybe he hasn't realised that Cameron made exactly the same points in his question-and-answer session earlier. I think many of those in the conference hall will have their sights set on lunch now...

12:52 - Now the Labour leader has reverted to type. He may be wandering around the stage like Steve Jobs, but the content matter is something from a lecture. He's talking about the historical roots of the European Union. The problem, he says, is people "confusing passions for the European Union with passions for the institutions".

12:48 - Miliband begins by telling a bizarre anecdote about a meeting with Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King. It involves his brother, a hotel in California, and a messenger wearing pink. If you're not following the speech live, believe me when I say the final result is nowhere near as good as those ingredients make it sound. But it's a decent ice-breaker. And underlines the very informal nature of Miliband's approach here.

12:45 - Right, the leader of the opposition gets a pretty decent introduction from Carr - Labour and Miliband are "growing in stature", which is nice - and begins his speech. As in his conference speech this autumn, he's not interested in having a podium. This is exactly the kind of thing which will really impress this sort of audience...

12:25 - I've spoken to one of Miliband's press officers about this issue. Why is Miliband attacking Cameron for adopting an unrealistically tough negotiation stance, when Miliband himself prefers an even tougher - and therefore even more unrealistic - approach? The difference is one of style rather than strategy, the spinner explained. Cameron tends to alienate his European colleagues, irritating them and being something of a diplomatic calamity. That's what Labour objects to.

12:20 - What is more interesting about Miliband's speech is the attack he mounts on David Cameron, however. His argument is that Cameron wants to stay in Europe, but is too weak to ensure that Britain does. Here's the key quote:

We cannot afford to use up our energies and alliances on negotiations that will not deliver. Just as with the veto that wasn’t last December, it will undermine our status abroad and our position at home - increasing frustration and the drive to the exit.

Miliband's focus is on the EU budget negotiations taking place later this week. The prime minister is indeed weak, here - but only because Miliband combined with Tory eurosceptics in defeating him in the Commons. Where Cameron is arguing for a real-terms freeze, the leader of the opposition wants a real-terms cut. So ere the PM to follow Miliband's lead and adopt this hardball approach in the talks, the chances of a deal being reached would be even slimmer. Miliband advancing this argument seems somewhat nonsensical, therefore.

12:15 - The Labour leader's main argument is that British business has to "secure our future in Europe". He's expected to use his speech to highlight the economic perils that a withdrawal from Europe would have on Britain's economy:

Withdrawal would leave Britain voiceless and powerless, on the outside looking in at forums like world trade talks. And, instead of building a One Nation economy, we would  beleft with an off-shore Britain competing on low wages and low skills in a race to the bottom.

Given CBI president Sir Roger Carr's remarks this morning - see my 09:45 post below - this is a message likely to be welcomed by this audience. Miliband will add:

If we left the EU it would be the United States, China, the European Union in the negotiating room - and Britain in the overflow room. We would end up competing on low-wages and low-skills: an off-shore low-value economy, a race to the bottom.

12:10 - It's nearly time for Ed Miliband's speech, one which will extend the message he was pushing yesterday in newspaper interviews. My story from Sunday is here: Miliband warns against 'dangerous' Tory eurosceptics. (As I write this, the snappers are getting excited by his imminent arrival at the Grosvenor House Hotel.)

Business leaders size up the government

12:00 - Back in the hall, a not-so-interesting panel session is now underway. I am studiously ignoring it. Instead I bring you the official reaction of John Cridland, director-general of the CBI, to the PM's speech. It is not entirely thrilling, but there you go. Much more interesting are the thoughts of ordinary delegates who I spoke to in the coffee break. Check out their views below, but here's what Cridland had to say:

The prime minister gave new impetus to two key drivers of growth: exports and infrastructure. Business will be encouraged by a clear statement that the prime minister is putting government’s shoulder to the wheel to get these initiatives speeded up. Difficult times demand difficult approaches - we welcome government’s renewed push to get things done.

I seem to recall a very similar reaction to a very similar speech last year...

11:55 - Most interesting, though, were the thoughts of a manager at a major chemical company. He wasn't particularly happy about the use of the "war metaphor" deployed by the prime minister. "It's not something I align with particularly but clearly they feel the task is that large, they need to mobilise people into action," he said, embracing Cameron's language entirely. "Our experience of business is we've been wrapped up in quite a lot of process when it comes to doing anything. Particularly a number of planning regulations. These things cost time, and they cost money. And they're critical to the future of the business." He's not happy with the language Cameron's used, but agrees with the points he's making.

He also expressed concern about the ability of the government to be an effective watchdog - because the local population about to be affected by a big chemical plant aren't convinced that the regulation in place is going to work. That's an interesting alternative take on the red tape issue...

11:50 - In general, the reaction to David Cameron has been a positive one. He is an impressive speaker, most agree. I've heard exactly the same thing at last year's CBI conference, and the year before that, too. Still, there are some points of alarm. A magazine publisher interested in the government's infrastructure agenda noted the PM had given examples of specific motorways "to demonstrate we've got diggers on the ground". Someone representing a trade group for the film and TV said she was worried about the export problem - she has an axe to grind about 2003 legislation which she's worried is sending creative business abroad.

11:45 - By an utterly bizarre coincidence I happened to bump into one of the most relevant figures from the business world on the problem Vince Cable was outlining - the shortage of engineers. Adrian Gunn is the chief executive officer at Matchtech, the UK's largest engineering recruitment company. He has 2,500 vacancies needing to be filled - and he's far from completely happy with the government's approach.

 

It was great they're talking about what we're doing to get people back into engineering. Vince said it would take ten years. But I think David Cameron's fooling himself if he thinks our immigration policy is helping us at this very moment.

Do I believe we've got a flag waving saying the UK's open for global talent? No - I'd say we're doing quite the opposite, and that needs to be resolved in the short-term.

 

So what will happen to those 2,500 vacancies, then? Well, lots of them will end up being abandoned. Other companies might decide to set up a research centre in another country. That's what worries Gunn. "Once we lose those jobs," he asks, "are we going to get them back?"

Cable's speech: Engineering growth

12:05 - Here's a link to the full speech from the business secretary.

11:18 - Now it's coffee break time. I'm going down to the main area to talk to some delegates and get a feel for their reception of the two government speeches... back soon.

11:17 - After a desperate bid to find a "lady" to ask the second and final question for "gender balance", Cable is asked about languages. "I'm afraid I'm as bad as everybody else," he admits. The language problem is being addressed via funding from the Higher Education Funding Council. Modern languages are a problem, Cable acknowledges.

11:15 - Cable will take a couple of quick questions... someone called Roland asks a good question about whether the government's doing enough to "extol the virtues of EU membership". Yes, Cable says. "We should promote the virtues of the single market to British business." That was dealt with very briskly.

11:05 - The remainder of Cable's speech, it seems, is all about government efforts to boost the number of engineers. Funding is being thrown at all levels, from higher education to apprenticeships to training colleges to R&D funds. "All of these interventions are designed to stimulate innovation, reduce the risks associated with investment in new technologies and R&D, and bolster the skills pipeline all the way along," Cable is about to conclude. He will say, darkly: "It will be necessary to win battles in government to prioritise this agenda."

11:02 - Cable, all understanding, says it's perfectly understandable that business confidence is so wobbly. He appears to be using his speech to lobby the Treasury ahead of the autumn statement. He wants more spending on post-18 vocational education, and on research and development before commercial innovation.

Cable won't be pinned down on the government's new industrial strategy. He's not interested in "picking winners", but is instead promising to be "flexible in our approach". Ah! I see I've caught up with the business secretary as he delivers his speech.

10:57 - Vince Cable is speaking now. I'm playing catch-up on this one, but bear with me! I've got a copy of the speech here and will sum it up shortly.

Cameron's speech: A 'war footing' for growth

10:55 - Interesting Q and A session there. The prime minister got a mixture of very easy questions ('what do you obsess about?' Answer: the global race for growth) and more tricky ones. Someone called Tony pressed him on the way universal credit acts as a disincentive for those moving from employment to self-employment. The PM struggled with that one. "I'm looking very carefully at that issue" was all he could manage.

Then came Europe, courtesy of a German diplomat who wanted to know the PM's view of Europe's role for businesses. Cameron said Europe had done two things for Britain: the single market, "a British priority", and EU enlargement. "This has helped to spread prosperity," he declared. Cameron then offered another rehearsal of his oft-repeated  negotiation strategy for this week's EU budget negotiations. Calling for a real-terms freeze is not anti-European, he insisted. "It doesn't make you a bad European, it makes you a good European!"

Apart from an unexpected appearance from John Birt, who Cameron suggested might be able to offer some advice on what to do with the BBC (cue laughter) that was about it.

10:10 - But before I go, here's a link to the full text of Cameron's speech. The prime minister is just starting to speak now.

It can be summed up as follows:

  • Britain is in a global competitive race for economic growth
  • The government has to do more to allow businesses to prosper
  • The best way to do this is to remove barriers preventing ministers from getting things done.

 

09:50 - I'm going to head over to the conference hall shortly, and won't be doing a blow-by-blow coverage of Cameron's speech. All the good bits are below, after all. However, the question-and-answer session afterwards is going to be interesting. I shall pay careful attention to the atmosphere in the room, tweeting away - you'll be able to see my updates in the Twitter column in the right-hand box - and then beetle back to my computer to bring you a general sense of how it went before not too long.

09:45 - Sir Roger Carr, the president of the CBI, is kicking off the conference now. We've already got a copy of his speech, so no need to actually wait until he says it before reporting to you on it. His main message is on Europe - an issue which Ed Miliband is set to address more directly this lunchtime. "Whilst looking for new partners, we must not forget old friends," he will say, pointing out that half of Britain's exports end up on the continent.

It's like many relationships – can't live with you, can't live without you – but somehow the partnership survives. Whatever the popular appeal may be of withdrawal, businessmen and politicians must keep a bridge firmly in place. As countries of Europe bind together in pursuit of salvation – we in the UK must work harder to avoid the risks of isolation.

This will be music to Miliband's ears. And it will probably prove useful to Cameron too, in that this warning from the business world might dampen the ardour of the eurosceptics pestering him in his own party.

There are just a couple of weeks until George Osborne's autumn statement, but the CBI is happy to continue its support for the coalition's austerity drive. Still, Carr's advice on the deficit reduction strategy is very nuanced - far from a blank cheque for the Treasury.

The CBI's message to the chancellor has been equally resolute – keep prescribing the medicine, but resist increasing the dosage – the patient is fragile – accept a longer convalescence – it is infinitely preferable to the risk of sudden relapse from a heavy overdose.  However well intentioned – the doctor must be patient.

09:25 - Here's the link to my comment piece: Cameron's war rhetoric masks a cynical power grab

Meanwhile, the conference hall is starting to fill up as early birds nab the best seats. They'll be getting underway properly at 09:45.

09:10 - The centrepiece of all this is an attempt to make it much harder for individuals and organisations to mount legal challenges against any bits of the government which haven't been doing their job properly. Judicial reviews are coming under fire. I've had a close look at the proposals and have got thoroughly worked up by them... I'll be posting a separate comment piece shortly, but here's a preview. Forgive me for quoting myself (a seriously not cool thing to do for any journalist):

When confronted by the realities of war, British governments have never hesitated to suspend or undermine Britain's civil liberties. Today David Cameron will put Britain on a "war footing" once again - with the express aim of trampling on restrictions on the government fought so hard for over the centuries.

08:50 - So serious, in fact, that this externalised-enemy-threat rhetoric actually has very serious implications for the domestic agenda. What Cameron is actually doing is seeking permission to sweep away the restrictions on government actually getting things done. He will actually use this phrase:

Consultations, impact assessments, audits, reviews, stakeholder management, securing professional buy-in, complying with EU procurement rules, assessing sector feedback… this is not how we became one of the most powerful, prosperous nations on earth. It's not how you get things done.

08:45 - Elsewhere in his speech, the prime minister will extend the coalition's war on regulation. The one-in-one-out rule for red tape will be replaced with a one-in, two-out rule. Not a great recipe for a party, but according to Cameron this is just the shot in the arm needed by the business world.

The main emphasis of Cameron's speech won't be on economic growth. Instead he will assume that as a given, and talk about the "global race" Britain is engaged with - as a country. "Every day the people in this room are fighting to win contracts in Indonesia, India, Nigeria. Every week you step off aeroplanes in the South and East and feel the pace of change there. You know what the global race means because you're living it," he will tell conference delegates. Note the use of the word "fighting" and the general nationalistic focus. This is about the country, struggling against the rest of the world. The enemy is externalised, it suggests. This is serious stuff.

08:40 - Cameron likes to present himself as the uberchampion of business interests to this crowd. He is On Their Side, he likes to suggest. In previous years  the PM has declared himself committed to the unremitting pursuit of growth. This year he aims to go even further. Here's an extract from his speech:

When this country was at war in the 40s, Whitehall underwent a revolution. Normal rules were circumvented. Convention was thrown out. As one historian put it, everything was thrown at 'the overriding purpose' of beating Hitler. Well, this country is in the economic equivalent of war today – and we need the same spirit. We need to forget about crossing every 't' and dotting every 'i' – and we need to throw everything we've got at winning in this global race.

08:35 - The line-up for today is something like this: Cameron at 10am; Cable immediately after, at 10:30; then a bo-ring panel debate with lots of important people who, if I worked for a business publication, I would be thrilled by. I will take this opportunity to talk to some people in suits and get their take on the Cameron speech. Then at 12:30 it's Miliband's turn, before the lengthy lunch break, and Boris Johnson taking over the reins for a turn from 14:30. A schedule of non-stop fun, you'll agree.

08:30 - Good morning from the Grosvenor House Hotel in Mayfair, central London, where this year's CBI annual conference is taking place today. I've swapped my usual perch next to Big Ben for a spot in the conference press room, which is undoubtedly better equipped with orange juice and some thoroughly excellent Fwench pastries. This is the biggest annual opportunity for Britain's politicians to court the world of business, so it's no surprise that both David Cameron and Ed Miliband are coming here to court the fat cats, struggling SMEs and everything inbetween. Also here will be mayor of London Boris Johnson and Vince Cable, the business secretary. Almost as an afterthought. I'll be bringing you coverage of their speeches throughout the day, as well as nipping off to speak to some of these titans of industry to get their take on the state of play.

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