UK minister sweet talks business chiefs as Boris Johnson delays speech

·Finance and policy reporter
·2 min read
Alok Sharma
Business secretary Alok Sharma speaking during the CBI annual conference at ITN Headquarters in central London. Photo: PA

A government minister has heaped praise on UK business leaders who “refused to be beaten” by the pandemic, as he apologised for having to impose new lockdown rules in England.

But business secretary Alok Sharma’s speech to a leading business conference on Monday was overshadowed by the fact prime minister Boris Johnson had been due to deliver it.

Johnson had been expected to address Confederation of British Industry (CBI)’s virtual annual conference on Monday, amid enormous business alarm over the impact of a second blanket lockdown in England.

But the CBI’s president Lord Bilimoria confirmed this morning Johnson had pulled out. He told BBC Radio 4 it was “absolutely normal” for prime ministers to speak, adding: “To my knowledge this has only not happened once in history.”

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Sharma then said Johnson would still address the CBI conference but do so later in the week, highlighting Johnson’s focus on tackling the virus and a planned speech to the Commons about England’s new restrictions on Monday.

Sharma went on a charm offensive in his speech, broadcast from ITN’s headquarters in central London. “From the FTSE 100 to the cornershop, you have simply refused to be beaten.”

Firms have demonstrated levels of resolve “we have never seen in peacetime,” he said. “It goes against every fibre of my being to tell entrepreneurs that they must down tools.”

Some business leaders’ personal sacrifices to protect jobs were “the absolute definition of responsible capitalism.”

He said the government stood “shoulder to shoulder” with firms, highlighting praise of its economic support policies from the International Monetary Fund last week.

READ MORE: UK factory slowdown and job cuts worsen even before England lockdown

He declined to say when asked by journalists how many jobs and firms could go as a result of lockdown however, but acknowledged jobs would be lost.

“Of course I’m sorry we’ve had to put in place these restrictions, but actually people do understand why we’re doing this.” The cost of inaction would be higher than the cost of action, he added.

Sharma also used the speech to urge firms to prepare for the end of the Brexit transition period, “whatever the outcome.”

The CBI’s director general Carolyn Fairbairn praised Sharma for stepping in to speak at “short notice,” and said it was “incredibly important” he had confirmed the prime minister would still address business chiefs. She also welcomed Sharma’s reference to the government’s industrial strategy, saying it had received less attention recently.

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