CBI chief questions Cameron's business credentials

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The Independent Online

Company bosses are still "uncertain" over the Conservative party's attitude towards business, the head of the CBI employers' group said yesterday.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Independent, Richard Lambert said David Cameron, the Tory leader, appeared to see big business as a "vested interest".

His remarks before the CBI's annual conference next week, when Mr Cameron and Gordon Brown will make keynote speeches, is a sign that the Tories still have a long way to go to secure the business vote.

By contrast he praised the Chancellor for his commitment to an open economy, although he tempered this with an attack on the Government's record on tax and red tape and the "disappointing outcome" from the massive increase in public spending.

Mr Lambert said he did not expect Mr Cameron to lay out detailed policies two years before an election.

But he said: "There is a degree of uncertainty about what he actually stands for and how the business case will fit into his view on the economy and the market. If there's an uncertainty and a worry it is perhaps that he talks about big business as a vested interest out on the sidelines."

Earlier this year, Mr Cameron criticised supermarkets, retailers and employers for acting irresponsibly over everything from pricing to the environment.

He also hit the headlines for criticising WH Smith for selling chocolate oranges rather than fruit at the till and BHS for selling "creepy" sexy underwear to pre-pubescent girls.

The CBI's boss insisted the CBI had a good relationship with George Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor, and Alan Duncan, its Trade and Industry spokesman, and said there were no longer the ideological divides of the past.

"It's more a question of just getting a better idea of what they stand for," he said.

When it came to Labour, Mr Lambert said business leaders would look to Mr Brown to give a clear sign he would tackle their concerns over tax and red tape.

He praised the Treasury for backing the recommendations of the independent Varney review into reducing HM Customs & Excise's burden on big business but said the debate needed to go wider.

"If people think they are going to get a transparent relationship [with government], that matters for the UK economy, not just the business players," he said.

"If you talk to our members they are certainly anxious about the areas of burdens on business and business taxes and the idea that the burden has got more complicated."

While stopping short of saying that public spending was out of control, he said that spending had been rising in real terms for some time.

"There's disappointment at some of the outcomes in terms of improvements to public services," he said. "The issue that makes people see red is public sector pensions and the idea of a two-tier system - with a group of workers who get massive support and the private sector."

He flagged up growing concerns over skills levels, both basic numeracy and literacy of people leaving school at 16, and the lack of science graduates. He highlighted an OECD report showing the UK came 22nd out of 29 rich nations.

"The Government is making efforts to improve skills but all our efforts are at best maintaining our position in competitiveness league tables - but where we are at is not good enough," he said.

He accepted that skills problems were increasingly forcing employers to look overseas for labour, and particularly to eastern Europe. "I think it is rational for companies to tackle skills problems by bringing in outside workers but it is not rational for a country," he said.

The CBI opens its conference in London on Monday.