If it was in a playground in one of the rougher parts of town, which increasingly it resembles, this could easily escalate. One candidate remarks that he thinks the party should ‘f**k business’ so another one wades in to argue ‘f**k ‘f**k business’’. And perhaps by lunchtime some other candidate you have never really heard off will be tweeting that instead the party should ‘f**k, ‘f**k, f**k business’’.
Before long, the Tory party leadership contest will start to look like the bits that were edited out of a Malcolm Tucker rant in The Thick of It for being too sweary. And yet the row spectacularly misses the point. Of course the Conservative party should be pro-business. But that is not quite the same thing as being pro-Big Business and its lobbyists.
Way back in the mists of time, Boris Johnson was reported to have said ‘f**k business’ in response to a question about how the vast majority of corporate leaders, and especially groups such as the Confederation of British Industry, were fiercely opposed to leaving the European Union.
It was a typically pithy Boris point. Matt Hancock, the health secretary who has joined the crowded field of contenders for the party leadership, argued in an interview in the FT today that he thought the party should ‘f**k ‘f**k business’’. In slightly more genteel language, what he meant was the Tories should be about doing what was best for the economy and not chasing a narrow ideological obsession.
In fairness, Hancock is making a half-decent point. Over the last three years, the Conservative party has either ignored the economy while arguing with itself over Europe, or else indulged Theresa May’s soggy brand of rehashed, corporatism (Price controls? Workers on Boards? Now those are Tory policies to which the F-word really could be attached). Part of his pitch for the leadership is that his party should be relaunching itself with a raft of pro-enterprise, pro-technology, pro-small company policies. There is nothing not to like about that. In fact, it is about time.
The trouble is, Johnson didn’t really mean the Conservative party should ignore business. In reality, he has a decent record as a champion of optimistic, vigorous, entrepreneurial free market capitalism. What he clearly meant was that it didn’t always have to be in favour of whatever Big Business and its lobbyists happen to be in favour of this year. And that is surely true as well.
In fact, the likes of the CBI have a terrible record on getting the big economic decisions right. They were in favour of price controls and caving into the trade unions in the 1970s, suspicious of privatisation and liberalisation in the 1980s and wanted to join the euro all through the 1990s. Instinctively, they don’t like change, and they favour the status quo. If we ever get round to leaving the EU, they will turn out to be wrong about that as well.
The Conservative party badly needs to resolve our departure from the EU as quickly and painlessly as possible and move on to rebuilding the economy once we are outside that big-but-not-terribly-successful trade bloc.
That will certainly involve reforms to make the UK more competitive. It would be better if all the candidates could agree on that and come up with some positive policies rather than simply argue about who can use the roughest language.