Norfolk and Suffolk leaders call for ‘new dialogue’ to bring business in from campaign sidelines

Prime minister Theresa May making a statement in Downing Street on Friday. Picture: Jonathan Brady/P

Prime minister Theresa May making a statement in Downing Street on Friday. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Business leaders in East Anglia have called for 'a new dialogue' to be opened between businesses and politicians as the country searches for direction in the wake of the general election.

The demand comes after a campaign in which they claim companies large and small were taken for granted and painted as a problem rather than a solution, and in which discussions over the economy were replaced with Brexit rhetoric, social care concerns and security fears.

Ahead of Brexit negotiations, they say the economy and needs of the business community must return to centre stage.

Norfolk Chamber president Jonathan Cage said the campaigns run by both main parties had shown neither was particularly 'a friend of business'.

'They have seen businesses mainly as a way to fund things. They all say that they see SMEs as the way for the country to grow but they are not showing any signs of supporting them. I think there's a need for a new dialogue,' he said.

'Things like the apprenticeship levy, auto-enrolment, the minimum wage: there's no acknowledgement that this is costing people time, money and effort to sort this out. There's no recognition.

'They expect businesses to swallow it and there's very little coming back in the other direction.'

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Discussions of the deficit and long-term economic policy, a hallmark of both elections since the financial crisis, were largely absent in 2017 – yet businesses are once again bracing themselves for the fallout of the uncertainty.

Labour had laid out plans to increase corporation tax to fund its spending, while the Conservatives offered to cut it, but struck an interventionist note with plans for energy market caps and corporate governance reforms.

Sterling slumped by 2% as soon as the exit poll was announced, though stabilised on Friday, while markets were braced for volatility as they waited for a government to be confirmed.

Sarah Howard, president of Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, said the relationship between government and business had to be re-set.

'The language and tone of some of the national political campaigns has worried many businesses,' she said.

'Incredibly, British business has been positioned as a problem in search of a solution, rather than the driver of local and national growth.

'We believe it's time to draw a line under that rhetoric. The simple truth is that government and business need each other in order to succeed.'

Graham Kill, chairman of IoD Suffolk, said: 'My take on it was that there was no time to engage business and for business to engage.'

He said domestic issues such as terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and the Tories' unanticipated social care u-turn had taken over from the 'original battleground of Brexit'.

'I suspect business issues were drowned out rather deliberately excluded. I also think that business got itself focused on engaging on the basis of Brexit and did insufficient to comment on public services, higher business taxes and so on.'

However, Salena Dawson, regional chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, said constituency MPs in East Anglia had been sympathetic during lobbying.

'Liaising with the parliamentary candidates, they were all open to talk to us and listen to us,' she said.

'We did not get the sense that the small business voice was not important to local candidates. We made it clear what we as small businesses wanted and I think to a certain extent we were heard.'