Andrea Leadsom: The advocate we need or just a caretaker?

Posted on 9 Aug 2019 by Jonny Williamson

Business in the UK is cursed by centralisation of the economy. From skills training through to industrial strategy, the levers of economic power lie in Whitehall. How that power is exercised, and where, is influenced by whoever occupies the role of Business Secretary.

Nick Peters examines the prospects for manufacturing as the latest politician to hold that role gets her feet under the table at BEIS HQ in Victoria Street, London.

Andrea Leadsom is the fifth secretary of state since the global financial crisis of 2008.

Andrea Leadsom arriving at BEIS HQ in London to assume her new role
Andrea Leadsom arriving at BEIS HQ in London to assume her new role.

She takes over from Greg Clark, a politician widely admired by UK manufacturers even though, as with all such office holders, he was ultimately beholden to the Treasury.

Clark was pro-business, pro-Remain, and steered the Industrial Strategy through to fruition.

This first real attempt to modernise UK manufacturing (and other sectors) promises to be a serious game changer and has received widespread support from our sector.

Clark’s record stands in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, Sajid Javid, who appeared completely at sea and, at the time of the Port Talbot crisis, on holiday as well.

Ironically Javid is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, even though his much-lauded experience in international banking amounted to trading in the very (dodgy) financial instruments whose explosion caused the 2008 crisis.

Before Javid, there was Sir Vince Cable and before him Lord Mandelson, who was perhaps the true architect of modern UK industrial strategy.

We can trace the Catapults and the networking of industry with academia to policies he set in train, including the 2010 report he commissioned from entrepreneur Hermann Hauser which led to the establishment of the Catapults network.

So, how will Ms Leadsom fare? We might never get the chance to find out. Everything will depend on Brexit and how the Tory party navigates those treacherous shoals.

If Prime Minister Johnson and his gung-ho gang of Brexiteers trip up, or get tripped up, over leaving the EU, she will be out on her ear like the rest of them. For now, though, let us assume she’ll be in post for a while.

Her first meeting with business leaders apparently went off very well. Which is hardly surprising as she only invited Brexit supporters, including Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, Ken Daly of JML (owned by arch-Leave supporter and cheap pound advocate John Mills), and reps from Scottish Power, Ineos and Laing O’Rourke.

She then used her pro-Brexit guests to amplify her message to businesses about being ready for B-Day.

She encountered more robust business representatives at a subsequent meeting with the IoD, CBI and British Chambers of Commerce.

They stressed the need for direct government help for businesses affected by the increasingly likely no-deal exit from the EU. £108m has been set aside for support but she gave no clue as to how it would be deployed, perhaps because she doesn’t yet have one.

More broadly she says she is now a climate change activist, having previously been a sceptic, is wedded to a carbon-neutral UK by 2050, while simultaneously – and not entirely consistently – supporting fracking.

She is anti-HS2, which will be a boon for UK manufacturers. The line runs through her Northamptonshire constituency so this may be colouring her thinking somewhat.

In terms of experience, she has had a career in finance, although she has been accused of tarting up her CV here and there – she was not in the front line of financial trading, more in support services, while her university degree in political science turns out to be in mere politics.

But given how she has ridden the political ebbs and flows of the last few years, one would have to say she’s at least pretty good at that.

Our best guess here at The Manufacturer is that we should expect nothing bar a bit of tinkering until after the dust of Brexit has settled, and that Andrea Leadsom should be regarded as little more than a caretaker.

With the UK heading towards recession, according to the last GDP figures, and a potential cataclysm coming our way on October 31st, UK manufacturing needs more than that. We need a defender at the centre of power.

And in the long term, what we really need is decentralised power and much greater involvement of business in policy so that this constant state of being hostage to partisan political fortunes is brought to an end.