Theresa May cannot have relished the prospect of speaking to a select gathering of the country’s foremost business leaders today.
Airbus, one of the UK’s leading manufacturing employers, has just mused openly about the possibility of removing jobs from the country.
Jeremy Hunt, her health secretary, promptly turned round and questioned the right of businesses like Airbus to speak out.
Worse still, it emerged that Boris Johnson, her foreign secretary, had very publicly disparaged business in profane terms.
Yet here was the prime minister, just days after Mr Johnson’s intemperate remarks became public, speaking at the Times CEO Summit and seeking to build bridges.
Before her sat an audience including the chairmen, chief executives and managing directors of scores of major employers, collectively employing more than a million people, including Sainsbury’s, Royal Bank of Scotland, Whitbread, KPMG, International Airlines Group, Unipart, Bupa, Starling Bank, ITV, Pets At Home, Citibank UK, McKinsey UK & Ireland, Waitrose, British American Tobacco, EY, Microsoft UK, Mars UK and Virgin Money.
They were not in a mood to be soft-soaped. An interactive poll of the audience prior to the PM’s arrival revealed that 37% of them were “not very confident” about the UK economy, compared with 35% who were neutral and just 27% who claimed to be “reasonably confident”.
Asked what posed the biggest threat to the UK economy, some 62% had highlighted a collapse of inward investment or a collapse in investor confidence, while 59% of them confirmed they were making contingency plans for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit.
So this was a tough gig. The Prime Minister began by seeking to charm her audience, insisting their creativity and innovation were vital for the nation, as was the wealth created by business.
She added: “A Conservative government will always listen to your voice and back you every step of the way as you grow our economy and create more good jobs.”
Recounting some of the ways in which she believes her government is working with business successfully, for example by financing the biggest investment in the UK’s railways since Victorian times and embarking on the biggest road-building programme seen since the 1970s, Mrs May went on to insist that she was making “good progress” in the Brexit negotiations and that the voice of business had helped shape those negotiations.
“If only,” muttered at least one suited figure.
There was, in this speech, some thoughtful analysis of the challenges facing not just the UK but the global economy: the rise of artificial intelligence and the data revolution; changes in mobility; dealing with an increasingly ageing society and the need to ensure economic growth is “clean growth”.
This is the kind of stuff business leaders love to hear: it provides them with reassurance that politicians are thinking about the state of the world and helping future-proof the economy.
Unfortunately, it was followed by a light scolding, as the PM reminded her audience that many people do not feel a free market economy is working for them. There were, she said, only two responses: reform the system or resort to “simple, populist answers that seek to smash that system”.
The primary function of the economy, she insisted, was raising people’s living standards.
That peroration was followed by a brief interview with Danny Finkelstein, The Times columnist, who is also now a Conservative peer.
It was the journalist in Lord Finkelstein that emerged, however, as his first question dealt with the allegation that Mr Johnson had said “f*** business”. There was a collective intake of breath, followed by nervous laughter, some of it from the First Lord of the Treasury herself. Was this really, she mused, what Times journalism had come to?
What the audience wanted to hear was a comprehensive condemnation of Mr Johnson’s comments. What it got was a guarded response in which the PM avoided the question, but at least made clear she disagreed with Messrs Johnson and Hunt, arguing: “It’s right that we listen to the voice of business. It’s right that business makes its voice heard.”
It was a missed opportunity from the leader of the self-styled party of business to build bridges with a constituency that is feeling increasingly unloved by both the major parties.
Before long, Mrs May had moved onto Brexit, shrugging off a question from Lord Finkelstein about whether warnings from business about Brexit were either “Project Fear or Project Reality” and insisting she was still focused on obtaining a good deal for the UK on both trade and security.
A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was again ruled out.
Then it was onto President Trump and his trade war with China. Here, Mrs May was on less treacherous terrain, insisting on the need for dialogue to reduce the risk of a trade war: “What none of us wants to see is a tit-for-tat escalation in trade disputes – that makes everybody poorer.”
It was possibly the only moment in the session where the entire audience was in complete agreement with the PM.