Bentley tyres swished up the drive of a medieval castle in Middle England. The chairmen of 50 large private businesses were to debate politics among the armour and stags’ heads. I earwigged, feeling like a gatecrasher at the neighbourhood branch of the Bilderberg group. Surely the mood would be triumphal. The Tories, the hereditary party of business, were, according to pollsters, rolling unstoppably towards power. Bolly and bonuses all round.
But the mood within the great hall was subdued. The death mask of Cromwell, that enemy of excess, frowned disapprovingly from the wall. “The danger is that the Tories will cut too deep, too fast,” worried an insurance boss, attacking his hors d’oeuvre. “The shadow front bench has an unfinished look,” groused a biotech executive over the main course. “Mandelson for Tory prime minister,” proposed the chair of a fast food chain, slowly demolishing his dessert. It was unclear whether he was joking.
After the near-life experience of the Labour party conference, this week’s Conservative shindig has energy and impetus. There is a scramble by lobbyists and their clients for face time with shadow ministers. The exhibition area is packed. Here, a campaign to close puppy farms faces the stall of the British Fur Trade Association, a juxtaposition that suggests the market solution of Dalmatian overcoats. In the conference itself, Microsoft UK featured in a video in which it stopped short of endorsing the Tories. The publicity-savvy software giant has previously featured in Labour electioneering, without directly supporting that party either.
All this activity reflects pragmatism rather than fervour. Business people on the fringes of the conference are as ambivalent towards the Conservatives as their Midlands counterparts. After 12 years out of power the Tories are something of an unknown quantity. Ken Clarke, a flashback to previous Tory governments, is correspondingly popular with business. If wrinkles bespeak sagacity, the former chancellor’s bags and dewlap must encode the wisdom of the ancients. The idea that Lord Mandelson might work for a Tory government has been ridiculed from the platform. But were he courageously to put service to his career ahead of petty party loyalties, many in business would applaud.
Everyone agrees that David Cameron has done great work in dragging the Tories into the 20th century. But he does not, as yet, inspire great warmth. One finance director described the Conservative leader as “the acceptable face of the Addams family”. The implication is that behind him lurk hangers, floggers and libertarian dogmatists as well as such Eurosceptics as Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, who wants a referendum on the UK’s position in Europe even if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. Tory hostility to the European Union courses through the veins of many small business owners. But it alarms multinationals of the kind that once favoured replacing sterling with the euro. Foreign car companies locate in the UK because it is a convenient bridgehead to the continent, not because it is an island fortress. They fear a drift towards EU secession. City bigwigs, for their part, want ministers to engage with European regulators, whom they suspect of dastardly plots to hog-tie the Square Mile with red tape.
Many of these objections merely tell you that business is set in its ways, like an old lady who enjoys tinned salmon but not the music of Lady Gaga. For example, the abolition of the Financial Services Authority, as proposed by the Conservatives, is unpopular with financial businesses, even though this elite corps of box tickers performed poorly during the financial crisis. Other quangos targeted by the Tories – the regional development agencies – have their supporters. One multinational engineer worries that the millions in research funding it has been promised via RDAs may vanish. The Conservatives plan to let councils decide whether to go on financing RDAs. The multinational engineer assumes that most would not.
The Tories score more points for their presumed default position – cutting spending, not raising taxes – than for the policies they have announced so far. True believers were encouraged by plans to freeze public sector pay laid out on Tuesday by George Osborne, progressive Conservatism’s very own High School Musical understudy. This was a promising counterpoint to Labour’s 50 per cent rate of income tax on high earners, a levy that the Tories “aspire” to reverse. However, even Tory activism on state spending has its detractors in business. John Wright, chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, who is hardly a mouthpiece for public service unions, is among those warning against the danger of fiscal puritanism. Over-aggressive cuts could choke off economic recovery, he believes, triggering a UK equivalent of Japan’s zero-growth Lost Decade. A shadow minister told me that “within six months of taking office we are likely to be the most unpopular government in recent history”. Given the likely austerity of a post-election budget, it might not take that long.
The prodigal son is coming home, but as a bailiff charged with seizing the telly. No wonder business is uneasy.