When the main opposition party is proposing to jack up corporation tax from 19 per cent to 26 per cent the Conservatives don’t have to do too much to claim the mantle of the pro-business party, but with Theresa May suddenly attracting the nickname ‘Red Theresa’, just how business-friendly would a post 9 June May government be?
First, the losers. First Philip Green and other company-owners who leave pension funds under-funded: the Conservatives are promising punitive fines and a possible new criminal offence for those who ‘deliberately or recklessly put at risk the ability of a pension scheme to meet its obligations’. With FTSE 350 companies running a combined pension deficit of £137 billion at the end of last year, that could potentially mean an awful lot of bosses in the slammer. Alternatively, it could mean lower dividends as companies make a greater priority of serving their pensioners rather than shareholders. Trouble is that in many cases shareholders are pension funds, so there is no easy way out of easing pension liabilities across the whole market.
Businesses mounting takeovers will also have to be more careful. The manifesto suggests that promises made to workers and other during takeover bids could be legally-enforced under new legislation. There is no sign, though, of wholesale rules preventing foreign companies swooping of British ones – just a vague promise to prevent foreign companies owning essential infrastructure from undermining national security. Given that May did eventually wave through the French and Chinese-funded Hinkley C nuclear power station, it doesn’t suggest that barriers here will be set too high.
Corporate fatcats will face an annual vote by shareholders on their pay packages, says the manifesto, together with provisions to force companies better to explain complex remuneration arrangements. Companies will have to publish a ratio of their executives’ pay to the earnings of the wider UK workforce. It is hard to see too many bosses quaking over that one.
There are winners, too. The gas industry can take heart from support for fracking. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will be able to take heart from a promise to make sure that 33 per cent of government purchasing comes from that sector by the end of the next parliament. It is rather easy, though, to see a potential way around this arbitrary target – why not set up smaller subsidiaries to handle public procurement?
Then there is the usual stuff about encouraging the digital economy – although why particular emphasis should be put on this above other growing industries isn’t so clear. Quite the oddest commitment in an otherwise streamline Conservative manifesto is a commitment to the ‘virtual mapping of Britain for use in video games’. Presumably by the 2022 general election Theresa May and other candidates who seems increasingly shy of the public will be able to do their door-to-door canvassing from the comfort of their spare bedrooms – and tour by virtual battle bus.