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Tories Ghost Major Business Conference While Labour Pledge "New Economic Diplomacy"


4 min read

Organisers of a major new trade conference in Birmingham have criticised government for failing to send a single minister to the event, while Labour sent two members of the shadow cabinet.

Naomi Smith, founder of the Trade Unlocked conference, told PoliticsHome she suspected the government may have "run out of things to say to business".  

"To have very little to offer, that would be a bit humiliating for them," she said. 

The conference, organised by Best For Britain, partnered with key industry figures, including the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), Santander, KPMG, and EY, for the event.

Panels hosted at the event focused on topics such as the labour mobility in the UK, free trade, Brexit opportunities, and UK productivity – with representatives from HSBC, BCC, and Santander among its speakers. 

Labour sent senior MPs to the conference with shadow foreign secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds giving the first speech to open the conference, and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy closing the event with his speech. 

Both said boosting the UK's position on the global stage, investing in green energy, and rebuilding relations with the EU were some of the party's key priorities – while they also stresed that this did not mean rejoining the trade bloc. 

They also emphasised the importance of healthy relationships between government and businesses to drive growth, with Lammy pledging "a new economic diplomacy for the modern era". 

But despite the range of leading businesses and Labour figures present at the event, the government failed to send any government ministers sparking criticism from organisers and attendees. 

Trade Unlocked founder Smith said it was "disappointing" that the government had failed to send a minister despite her having reached out.

"We kept getting responses from ministerial departments saying thank you for the invitation, this has now gone into the decision making process, we'll let you know – and we'd follow up, and we'd get this sort of same response where they just never did," said Smith.

"I think it's very disappointing that they're not here because this is a great audience, an engaged audience, that wants to hear what they've got to say – and has its own solutions to offer.

"It very much feels to me like they're just desperately trying to get through to recess, they'll then take stock over the summer and hope to come back in conference season with something with a bit more substance."

Smith added that while Labour had not made any "groundbreaking announcements" at the conference, she said she was "pleased that Labour is so willing to engage and so keen to come along", adding she believed they were moving "in the right direction". 

But she worried that the "scale of [Labour's] ambition on the economic front isn't yet being met by their scale of ambition on the trade front". 

Shadow trade secretary Thomas-Symonds told PoliticsHome the government's failure to send any ministers to the conference shows they're not "serious on business in the way Labour is". 

"I am here as the opposition, I don't have the levers of power at the moment to make a difference about that – but what I do have, is a voice to come here and call on the government," he said.

"We are engaging, speaking, working in partnership with businesses every opportunity that we can - that's another reason why I'm here today to speak to so many of the people who are here.

"That the government can't even be bothered to turn up says something about them."

PoliticsHome understands there is growing concern among some Tory MPs that Labour are striking the right tone when it comes to appealing to businesses in a way the government aren't. 

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy told PoliticsHome it was "unbelievable" that representatives for government had not shown up, given the UK's current economic backdrop. 

Consumer price index (CPI) inflation remained at 8.7 per cent in new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) today, with core inflation alarmingly rising to 7.1 per cent . 

The Bank of England is widely expected to hike interest rates for the thirteenth consecutive month this week, which will put more pressure on households and businesses in an attempt to drive inflation down. 

"I think with exports down by a third in Europe, with inflation running at 8.7 per cent, business, trade organisations, civil society coming together to help politicians of all stripes look forward I think it's just unbelievable that the Conservative government couldn't send couldn't find anyone to send," said Lammy.

"I have to say there weren't many of them in parliament yesterday, and they've wrapped up pretty quickly today... that they couldn't put someone on a train and come to such an important gathering, I think it's an indication that this is a very tired week and divided government."

Lammy said Labour saw "hearing and listening to business and industry" as a priority in its "mission". 

"Our future growth depends on small, medium size, and big companies – we need to see the opportunities of green technologies a catalyser for our economy," he added. 

"All of the answers do not lie with us as politicians, and that's why it's so important to be here in Birmingham."

The department for business and trade has been contacted for comment. 

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