Why is a Conservative government publishing an industrial strategy? This afternoon, Business Secretary Greg Clark tried to insist to MPs that the white paper he was presenting wasn’t a return to the mistakes of previous governments in picking winners and constraining businesses, but a means of ensuring that Britain was able to compete with other countries to solve some of the great challenges of our time. ‘This isn’t about protecting the past, it’s about taking control of our future as a nation,’ he argued in his statement, telling the Commons that the government had struck four sector deals in life sciences, construction, artificial intelligence and the automotive industry. He repeatedly used the language of the ‘global race’ that so obsessed the Cameron government, while avoiding the phrase itself. Britain couldn’t be left behind, he argued, and it needed to be ready to compete properly.
Theresa May promised this strategy when she became Prime Minister, and her former adviser Nick Timothy had bemoaned the previous government’s failure to produce what he saw as a real industrial strategy. Now, with things looking up a little bit after the Budget didn’t fall apart immediately (this is how low the bar is set for the government at present) and after the Prime Minister has appeared to regain a little confidence, there is a little more room to talk about the domestic agenda with some faith that people might listen.
Labour’s response in the Commons to Clark’s statement also showed why an industrial strategy was in the Downing Street grid for this week. Rebecca Long-Bailey had plenty to criticise in the strategy, but it was all along the lines of ‘it’s not enough’. After accepting to MPs that ‘while its intentions may be… well intentioned’, she claimed the strategy merely reheated old announcements and didn’t take Britain up to the same level of investment as other advanced economies. But she couldn’t disagree with the principle of an industrial strategy, and so the worst the Opposition can say is ‘we want more’, which is the sort of complaint that most ministers dream of. Campaigners, opposition politicians and sector bodies never put out press releases after Budgets and other important announcements saying ‘we are totally happy with this and are actually concerned you may be helping/funding the sector too much now’, after all.
The bigger problem is that as this industrial strategy was being unveiled, the Brexit department was handing over its impact assessment on Britain leaving the EU, drawn up in part by Clark’s own department, to the Brexit Select Committee. It is up to the Committee whether it publishes this document, which contains ‘sectoral analysis covering 58 sectors’, but the reason there has been so much pressure on the government to release this document (or, as those pushing for it claimed, a cache of 58 documents) is that the opponents of Brexit believe it will paint a devastating picture of the damage that leaving the EU will do to many key sectors. Those critics of Brexit aren’t always the most organised, but it won’t be that difficult for them to try to link the industrial strategy and the assessments. Indeed, Lord Heseltine has already done so today, claiming that the best industrial strategy would be for Brexit to be cancelled. Others are taking a less Grinch-like approach to Brexit, but will still warn that botched negotiations on trade are going to cause significant damage to the economy, no matter how much industrial strategising Clark and co get up to. Whether the government is able to stop its white paper being mired, as everything else is, in Brexit rows will show whether May and her ministers really have grown any stronger in recent weeks.