The UK Independence party has embarked on a charm offensive of City firms as the party looks to change its reputation among some of Britain’s biggest companies.
Steven Woolfe, Ukip’s financial services spokesman, has spent the past two days visiting executives from blue-chip companies in an effort to dilute some of the hostility the party has faced from British businesses.
Mr Woolfe met representatives from major banks, fund managers, rating agencies, consultancy firms, accountants and regulators during a flurry of meetings in the Square Mile.
The meetings were convened to allow participants to quiz Mr Woolfe, an MEP, on what the party is trying to achieve in Europe, although Britain’s membership of the union and immigration were also hotly debated.
Several of those who attended the meetings said they were impressed by Mr Woolfe and his willingness to engage with the detail of financial regulation, even if they remained sceptical about the party’s main policy goals.
Andrew Hilton, director of the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation, which organised one of the meetings, told the Financial Times: “He was very good, and was aware of the legislation coming down the pipeline.”
“This is still a learning process for Ukip and he made one or two basic mistakes about what was European legislation, but we all appreciated his willingness to engage,” Mr Hilton said.
The move is part of a wider push by Ukip to professionalise the way the party works, including engaging for the first time on the detail of European directives.
In the past, the party’s MEPs have made a virtue of not turning up for key meetings or votes, choosing instead to collect allowances without working for them.
One Ukip official said: “In the past we haven’t wanted to ‘feed the beast’ by participating in the European process, but now we feel we should at least try and make the regulations that come our way less bad.”
Businesses have been keen to engage with the party particularly since they won last year’s European elections to become Britain’s largest party in Brussels.
Many City figures have complained that the loss of experienced figures such as Sharon Bowles, the Liberal Democrat MEP who chaired the parliament’s economic committee but lost her seat last May, has cost the UK influence in Europe.
One executive who attended a meeting with Mr Woolfe said: “With the departure of Sharon Bowles, we need to find other ways of representing our interests in Brussels. We may not like Ukip’s policies on European membership or immigration, but at least they are willing to talk to us about how we want to change regulations.”
Despite the City background of Nigel Farage, Ukip’s leader, the party has struggled to win the backing of more than a handful of British figures, and often encounters opposition from larger companies, not least because of its opposition to the EU.
But the party is now attempting to mollify some of that opposition by explaining it is now willing for the first time in its history to try and influence the outcome of European debates.
One figure within the party said: “We know we are hardly going to have big business coming out for Ukip at the next election. But we can at least persuade them we are not some kind of beast with two heads, and maybe even secure support in the longer term for our efforts to leave the EU.”
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