Greg Clark: “The next few weeks and months will be a defining period for the UK”
Greg Clark knows the next few months will be a defining period for the UK. As Brexit begins to take shape, the Business Secretary is determined that firms large and small will be heard at the Cabinet table. He talks to Sebastian Whale
Like a cricketer waiting to go out to bat, Greg Clark had to sit tight while Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt spoke inside Number 10 as day turned to night in early January. Weeks of rumours would have it that Clark was either due for the chop or in line to trade briefs with the Health Secretary during May’s reshuffle of her top team.
In a rear-guard action, Hunt convinced the PM after nearly 90 minutes to retain him at the Department of Health. Clark was reappointed Business Secretary following a comparatively brisk visit to Downing Street.
“I had a very short and delightfully cordial meeting with the Prime Minister. I think the speculation was wide of the mark,” Clark politely states.
So, was there no truth to the reports regarding his future? “All I know is that she, the Prime Minister, was very keen on the work that we were doing together on the industrial strategy and asked me to continue.”
Such is Clark’s gentlemanly approach that probes to work out exactly he felt about events that took place were unlikely to yield any fruit. And the very nature of the briefing, which centred around Clark’s inability to cut through, seemed highly personal for a man who is as inoffensive as they come. But the whole saga ended up highlighting May’s weakness, unable to move or sack members of her Cabinet, in office but not in power.
Clark does not want to focus on all that. How does it feel to still be in post? “I’m thrilled. The pulling together of the industrial strategy for the whole nation with all the opportunities that there are in the world today, I think is a fantastic privilege. I’ve always been very energised by it from the moment I was appointed,” he says.
We are sitting in Clark’s ministerial office at the Houses of Parliament on a Tuesday evening that marks the centenary of some women getting the vote. Clark is in casual attire with a blue collared shirt sitting underneath a green v-neck jumper that matches the four couches positioned in the top half of his room, impressing as he recalls with accuracy our photographer’s name after they worked together on a shoot some years back.
Clark is fresh from launching the Government’s long-awaited industrial strategy, which aims to lift growth and improve productivity. He unveiled sector deals with life sciences, artificial intelligence, creative, automotive and construction sectors (with his door open for more, he stresses), an extra £725m to the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and a rise in Research and Development tax credits.
But the strategy was overshadowed by the engagement of little known couple ‘Harry and Meghan’, pushing it down the news agenda. “It’s nice that it coincides with good news,” Clark says with a smile.
Is it not fair to say though that the strategy failed to land? “The approach that I’ve taken with the strategy right from the beginning, is that it has to be for the long term. A short-term strategy is a contradiction in terms. How do you make sure that something endures? My view is that you need to bring everyone together, bring the country together, bring industry together, bring the leaders of our sectors together with this,” he says.
“You’ve seen since the launch that actually people regard it with a recognition that this is the right way forward. The grand challenges that we set out: AI and big data, the future of mobility, the ageing population, clean grown; these are the areas that actually where we can create a big future for the UK.”
Of course, it’s not only royal engagements hogging the air time. All roads lead to Brexit. And while Clark insists that the necessary conversations about the future of work and automation are taking place, much of the focus is on the immediate future direction of the United Kingdom.
We meet the day before the first of two Cabinet sub-committee talks on Brexit. I put to Clark that business is looking for clarity on key decisions regarding the UK’s vision for the future, particularly in relation to the vexed issue of the customs union. Does he support remaining in a customs union with the EU?
“It’s true to say that of course every business wants to have as much certainty as possible. But day-in, day-out I talk to businesses large and small, and they recognise that in a negotiation the certainty comes as you conclude the negotiation,” he says.
“Now, in terms of the best possible deal, again, one of my responsibilities as the Business Secretary is to obtain, to understand and to advocate very clearly what business needs out of Brexit. Business is foundational to our economy. We could not be the country we are without successful businesses. We absolutely owe it to businesses large and small to make sure that we are reflecting their needs both at the high level and in detail as well.
“I meet with the business organisations every week and have done since the beginning of my tenure, we have a good understanding that feeds into those negotiations. I said from the outset reflecting their views that we need to see continued ability to trade with the minimum of frictions and without tariffs with the rest of the European Union.
“We need an implementation period. It was through the discussions that I had with businesses right across the country last summer that it was identified as clearly the most important thing that they wanted. And the breakthrough that we saw in December following on from the Florence speech was a direct result of listening carefully to the requirements of business. That’s what I’ll do throughout this.”
The Confederation of British Industry rejected the Government’s aim to enter a customs arrangement with the EU, which would involve a new system in which the UK would have to collect duty for European governments, and vice versa. So, if Clark is to represent business at the Cabinet table, shouldn’t he be calling for the UK to remain in the customs union?
“It’s the outcome that you want that you need to aim for. It’s very clear and it is unambiguously the case that the importance of the ability to trade not just without tariffs but without introducing frictions into often very sophisticated and well-developed supply chains is absolutely essential,” he says.
“The discussions that will take place as we’re just getting into that phase of discussions, will be about what are the best arrangements that will deliver that. What I want to do is to make sure that of all of the different options that we discuss and that we debate as part of the negotiations, that we secure what we need for the continued prosperity of business.”
But with firms set to make decisions on potential relocations of headquarters in the coming months, isn’t there a sense of urgency here?
“That’s why the implementation period is so important. If it’s agreed in March of this year then obviously it will take effect from the end of March next year. So, in effect that is three years of stability in terms of the present arrangements to be able to trade. That’s incredibly valuable for businesses who might otherwise need to make decisions during that time.”
In a further bid to quell unease among business Clark along with fellow Cabinet ministers David Davis and Philip Hammond wrote a letter to the FT assuring that European workers will be able to continue to work in Britain during the transition period out of EU membership. The Government is still to iron out its vision for future immigration policy.
“Most places I go in the country, people say, again businesses large and small, that they need to be able to count on the sources of the labour that they have, domestic and those from Europe, over the months ahead,” says Clark.
“Any abrupt change to that would be very difficult and that’s why we were so clear in that letter of the continued policy for people to be able to come and work.”
The question of Europe continues to be a razor-sharp thorn in the side of the Conservative party however, with criticism of the Civil Service and calls for Theresa May to “sling out” Eurosceptic MPs taking place all in the same week. Clark recognises that the EU has always “attracted strong views”, but claims his party acknowledges the decision the country has taken. “Some of the discussions that we have don’t accord with the types of division that is sometimes described. These are difficult and important issues but there is a determination together to find the right way through,” he says.
He adds: “I find that colleagues in the Conservative party want the negotiations to be successful. They want the Prime Minister to succeed in those negotiations. The next few weeks and months are going to be a defining period for us as a country. They will define our future relationship.
“It’s so important that we get a positive outcome that I think the will of the party is like the will of the country, which is for us to get that good deal.”
Clark has enough on his plate beside Brexit following the collapse of construction giant Carillion and the Government’s response to the Taylor review into work in the gig economy, launched without much fanfare in the days after our interview. The Government has talked tough on corporate governance issues but proposals to put workers on boards and rhetoric around curbing the excesses of executives have been accused of falling short.
Clark is typically insistent that the reforms implemented, such as a requirement on companies to address their pay policies after a shareholder revolt and an annual report of the ratio of the chief executive pay to the average employee, are taking effect. Would he consider, as Labour have proposed, putting restrictions on the ratio between an organisation’s highest and lowest paid employee?
“It’s for shareholders to decide and to justify, not just in terms of their decisions as to how this is in the interest of the company, but including the interest of their employees. That’s now one of their responsibilities.”
It seems that in his role Clark must balance championing the needs of business at the Cabinet table while seeking to reform malpractice where it takes place. Under Theresa May’s stewardship the Conservatives have combined tough rhetoric on corporate excesses while still claiming to be the party of business. Is the government getting the message right?
“Our reputation as a country is of a place in which you can do business dependably, in a system in which high standards are expected. One of those is how you treat your employees. That is where our reputation is, and to go back to the industrial strategy, increasingly in the future, in an uncertain world in which around the world there are places and jurisdictions where there is less confidence in the security and the standards that apply, I think Britain’s reputation is a strong selling point,” he says.
“Every so often we make revisions, whether it’s to corporate governance, whether it’s to employee rights, all in the direction of strengthening that reputation. That is in the interests of companies as well as the whole country.”