Sunak business advisers stay neutral as election business row rages

28 May 2024, 15:28 | Updated: 28 May 2024, 17:44

Rishi Sunak's committee of business advisers refused to publicly back the government's economic policy record on Tuesday amid an escalating row over Labour's efforts to steal the Conservative Party's traditional mantle as 'the party of business'.

Sky News contacted all 15 of the companies represented on the prime minister's business council to see whether their bosses would publicly endorse the Tories, but none agreed to do so.

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Among the companies whose executives sat on the council - which is thought to have met no more than twice since its launch in January - were BT Group, ITV, Nationwide and Unilever.

Rolls Royce Holdings, the aircraft engine manufacturer, agreed to let its Derby headquarters be used for a campaign speech by Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, on Tuesday, but said it remained neutral.

Its chief executive, Tufan Erginbilgic, has also been a member of Mr Sunak's business council since its launch.

Some of the 15 companies failed to respond to enquiries from Sky News, while others said either officially or on an unattributable basis that they would remain politically neutral during the election campaign.

One of those involved said its chief executive's participation in the council was aimed at contributing views in order to influence government policy.

"[Their] involvement is not a direct endorsement of the governing political party's views as these will be many and varied," the company said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Although that neutrality is not unusual for the bosses of major public companies, it highlights the difficulty that the Tories will have in the lead-up to 4 July in persuading major corporate names to publicly back the party.

The Tories have historically trumped Labour in securing public endorsements from big business, but were beaten out of the traps this time with a pro-Labour letter signed by more than 120 businesspeople and published on Tuesday.

None of the signatories of the Labour letter are serving FTSE-100 chief executives, with the only current public company heavyweight on the list being Andy Higginson, the chairman of JD Sports Fashion.

Ian King, Sky News's business presenter, revealed later on Tuesday that a number of the companies listed as supporters were dormant, while one of the signatories, WPP executive Karen Blackett, had already left the company she was cited as working for.

Labour also came under fire from Unite, the trade union, for trumpeting the involvement of John Holland-Kaye, the former Heathrow Airport chief executive, because of his use of controversial 'fire and rehire' processes during the pandemic.

In the pro-Labour letter, the business signatories said that Britain's economy was "beset by instability, stagnation, and a lack of long-term focus".

Sky News revealed last week that the Tories have contacted business leaders since Mr Sunak called the election, asking them to take part in broadcast media opportunities, provide quotes in support of manifesto pledges and host events and visits for cabinet ministers.

Those efforts are being spearheaded by Lord Petitgas, the former Morgan Stanley executive, who for months has been the prime minister's special adviser on business.

Tory insiders dismissed the Labour letter as "a damp squib" which showed that Sir Keir Starmer and Ms Reeves had "completely failed to win the trust of major companies in the UK".