What do you get when you put into the same room the bosses of Vodafone, BT, Rolls-Royce, Lloyds Banking Group, TalkTalk Telecom, Barclays, Nationwide Building Society, HSBC UK, Amazon UK, Merlin Entertainments, Siemens UK & Ireland, Unipart, the John Lewis Partnership, EY, KPMG, the CBI, Facebook UK & Ireland and the Institute of Directors and a gaggle of influential tech entrepreneurs?
The answer is the annual CEO Summit hosted by The Times which, since it was launched in 2010 just weeks after the creation of Britain’s first coalition government since the war, has become one of the most high-powered gatherings of executives this side of Davos.
Such events, as well as making an important contribution to the national debate on the economy, are usually a fantastic opportunity to take the pulse of corporate Britain and this year was no exception.
The theme of this year’s event was making sense of the tumultuous events that have shaken the global political landscape during the last 12 months, including the election of Donald Trump, the rise of Emmanuel Macron and the unexpected election of a hung parliament following Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election.
Video: PM sets out deal for EU citizens in UK
The mood, it is fair to say, was one of uncertainty. A poll that asked delegates how confident they were about the UK economy was topped, with a 46% vote, of “not very confident”. “Neutral” was next, on 24%, followed by “reasonably confident” on 20% and “not confident at all” on 10%.
Not one delegate voted for “very confident”. A similar poll found a majority of executives do not expect there to be a recession during the next 12 months – although a sizeable minority feared there would be.
The tone was set almost from the outset with a speech by Enda Kenny, who has just stepped down after just over six years as Ireland’s Taoiseach, during which he had a stern message for Theresa May as she prepares for Brexit negotiations.
Video: One year on from Brexit
He said: “Generally, you’ve got a better chance of getting some of what you want if you know what you want.
“And it’s much the same with ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – as if, by declaration or by empathy, we are all supposed to know what Brexit means and that we know precisely and intimately, even innately.
“The fact is we do not. We have little idea and, as politicians, we have to have to honesty and humility to say that.”
The other keynote speaker David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, was listened to with politeness. His speech was delivered with characteristic bounce and verve although it is not clear whether, during the subsequent question and answer session, he really intended to say that his Cabinet colleague, the Chancellor Philip Hammond, had “said a lot of things that aren’t consistent with each other”.
Video: Hammond’s Brexit ‘priority’ for business
Mr Davis at one point went “off-piste” to deviate from his speech and conjure up memories of a figure still revered by many in the business community – Margaret Thatcher.
He recalled that the mood in the country presently felt reminiscent of the mood just before Mrs Thatcher’s election in 1979 and said that what was needed was a “revolution of expectations” similar to the one brought about by Britain’s longest-serving post-war Prime Minister. He said that, after her elections, suddenly “people said ‘we can do this’, it wasn’t just about managing decline.”
However, talking with delegates afterwards, it is fair to say that few were impressed by Mr Davis’s sunny optimism.
One senior executive went so far as to compare, in detrimental terms, Mrs May and Mr Hammond with her German counterparts Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schauble.
Video: Government in ‘disarray’ on Brexit
In Germany, he went on, the focus of government is all about equipping the economy for what business people call ‘Industry 4.0’ or the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. In this country, he complained, all ministerial “bandwidth is going to be taken up with Brexit”.
What was particularly shocking about this response is that business people are, by definition, upbeat and optimistic people. They are glass half-full folk, by and large.
That is not to say there was not optimism to be found. There was – particularly among those business leaders whose enterprises are involved with technology.
There were also plenty of sensible prescriptions on offer from business leaders on how to boost Britain’s lacklustre productivity record, on boosting the robustness of the financial services sector ahead of an expected return to a more normal interest rate environment and on how businesses should respond to the changing tastes and desires of millennials.
There was also optimism that business can remodel itself to meet the current mood of populism in the developed world and plenty of informed discussion about how most CEOs see the plc model in terms of its sense of public purpose and not just, as in the early 2000s, in terms of shareholder value.
Overall, though, these were pockets of sunlight.
British business, not to put too fine a point on it, is growing increasingly uneasy about what the Brexit negotiations are going to bring.
Source: SKY News