I’ve got your back: UK’s Sunak tries to reboot business ties

By Andrew MacAskill and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) -British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told more than 200 chief executives on Monday he was “unashamedly pro-business” and he needed their help to grow the economy and turn around his party’s fortunes before an election expected next year.

Sunak hosted the bosses at “Business Connect”, a conference designed to rebuild the governing Conservative Party’s relations with business that were damaged during the economic turmoil of the premierships of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

Sunak has made reviving the economy one of his five key priorities, after Britain’s gross domestic product only regained its pre-pandemic size in February.

“We want businesses small and large to know that this government has got your back,” he said.

International Monetary Fund projections published this month put Britain at the bottom of the world’s major economies in terms of expected growth in 2023, with a forecast that the economy will shrink by 0.3%.

As well as the global problems of higher energy prices and disrupted supply chains, many British companies are still having to adapt to new trading rules from Brexit as well as shortages of workers.

Data from EY Parthenon showed that UK-listed companies issued 75 profit warnings in the first quarter, above the quarterly average, with more than a third citing contract delays or cancellations.

Separate research from Russell Reynolds Associates said the number of CEOs that left FTSE 350 companies in 2022 had more than doubled from the year before, with 2023 expected to be just as turbulent.

The gathering of business leaders came just days after their biggest conduit with government, the scandal-hit Confederation of British Industry (CBI), imploded last week.

Sunak, a former investment banker, steered clear of commenting on the allegations of wrongdoing at the CBI, which are being investigated, but said he wanted to spread opportunity “no matter whether you’re a woman or man” or “whatever your socio-economic background is”.

Britain’s finance minister Jeremy Hunt said there was “no point” in engaging with the CBI after its members had “left in droves”, but he wanted a collective body through which the government could engage with business.

“It’s incredibly important for me when I am constructing budgets to have someone I can turn to that speaks for British business because we are a very, very pro-business government,” he was quoted as saying at the event by Sky News.

Gerry Murphy, chairman of luxury group Burberry, urged the prime minister to make Britain more competitive, criticising as an “own goal” a decision to stop tourists reclaiming a sales tax, a perk offered by continental rivals.

Sunak declined to discuss tax policies in an open forum, but he said he was open to discussing options and wanted ideas from companies on how he could improve the business environment.

“We take this very seriously,” he said. “We are here to listen and engage.”

(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill and Paul Sandle; Editing by David Holmes and Nick Macfie)