The Tories have “lost their way” in their approach to business and risk losing the argument about the future of British capitalism to Labour, a minister has warned on the eve of the Conservative party’s annual conference.
Sam Gyimah, a minister in the business department, claimed on Thursday that the Tories often appeared to be “singing from Labour’s hymn sheet” in criticising corporate behaviour, while “telling businesses to shut up — or worse”.
His comments add to prime minister Theresa May’s problems ahead of the Tory conference in Birmingham this weekend, when she will face a barrage of criticism over her Brexit strategy from Eurosceptic MPs led by Boris Johnson.
A sense of drift has been compounded in recent days by speculation at Westminster that Mrs May might quit as prime minister after “Brexit day” in March 2019, with David Lidington, her de facto deputy, failing to dispel the rumours on Thursday.
Asked by the Spectator magazine if he wanted her to lead the Conservatives into the next election, Mr Lidington said: “She will decide, in due course, what she wants to do. But for now, she is focusing on the job in hand.”
Mrs May had previously said she was “in it for the long term”, but Mr Lidington was less definitive. “She said to the party that she will remain leader for as long as they want her to and I think at the moment people are absolutely backing her,” he said.
Meanwhile Boris Johnson, the grassroots’ darling and frontrunner to replace Mrs May, upped the pressure on the prime minister with a fresh salvo attacking her Chequers plan.
The former foreign secretary, who resigned in the summer, said in his regular Daily Telegraph column that the UK should negotiate a Canada-style free-trade deal.
Business groups are afraid of a Canada deal because it would involve regulatory checks at the borders and onerous “rules of origin” paperwork. Meanwhile there is no Parliamentary majority for such a deal given that up to 50 Tory Europhiles are likely to vote against it.
Some sceptics believe Mr Johnson, who today called the Chequers plan a “moral and intellectual humiliation”, is trying to build up his support base for a widely expected leadership contest.
The Tory conference is likely to become a platform for ministers and MPs with ambitions to succeed Mrs May, but the prime minister’s allies said speculation about her quitting next year was “hogwash”.
Although Mrs May told business leaders in New York on Wednesday that she was “unashamedly pro-business”, some on the right of the Conservative party fear it is losing the political argument over the future of British capitalism.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leftwing leader, was brimming with ideological confidence at his party’s conference in Liverpool this week that the public is swinging behind his agenda for overhauling the economy, including by giving workers shares in big companies and seats on boards.
Mr Gyimah, universities minister and a former Goldman Sachs banker, implicitly criticised Mrs May’s approach — which has included copying Labour’s idea for a cap on household energy bills — and called for the Tories to stand up for business.
“We need to realise that if we are not the party of business, then we are nothing,” he wrote in The House magazine. “We can’t out-Corbyn Corbyn, and if we try, we risk offering a pale imitation that leaves people yearning for the real thing.”
He said the Tories had to offer “a full-throated endorsement of open markets”, claiming that Mr Corbyn had assembled “a cast of glitzy ambassadors from Stormzy to the Archbishop of Canterbury” to support Labour’s approach.
Mr Johnson’s recent “f*** business” comment has alarmed some on the Tory right. “We need to start making the case for free-market capitalism again from scratch,” said one cabinet minister. “We thought we had won that argument.”
But the Conservatives are divided on how to respond to Mr Corbyn’s assault on “greed is good” capitalism.
Robert Halfon, a former minister, wrote for the ConservativeHome website: “The problem for Conservatives is that the Corbyn description of what is going on resonates with millions of people.”
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