The head of the CBI, Digby Jones, was slapped down yesterday by Michael Howard for criticising the absence of a trade and industry spokesman in the new Tory leader's slimmed-down Shadow Cabinet.
Mr Howard said the comment from Mr Jones was "one of the most disappointing things" he had ever heard from the CBI director-general, adding: "If you are interested in titles, in what things are called, then I am not your man. I am interested in performance and results."
The put-down, delivered by Mr Howard while he was sharing a platform with Mr Jones at the CBI conference in Birmingham, threatens to undermine the new-found relationship between the Conservatives and the CBI. The employers' organisation has welcomed Mr Howard's appointment for making the party a more credible Opposition and more electable. Mr Howard emphasised that business would not be lower down the Tory agenda simply because there was not a dedicated spokesman in the shadow cabinet, saying that Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor, would also cover the trade and industry beat.
Mr Howard used his first set-piece speech since becoming Tory leader to attack Labour's "tax and spend" record and the increased burden of regulations and red tape it had imposed on business, which was now working through the system "like a slow-acting poison".
He pledged that a Tory government would reduce the regulatory burden by adopting a voluntary approach where possible and inserting "sunset clauses" into new regulations so they would automatically expire after a period of time unless they were re-introduced. "We believe that the best contribution government can make to your business is to give you more time to run your business," he told delegates.
Mr Howard said the "chickens are coming home to roost" following the 60 tax increases and 50 per cent growth in regulation that Labour had presided over since coming to power in 1997. "You cannot go on taxing and spending and over-regulating with impunity," he said. Labour, he claimed, was trapped in "a vicious cycle of ever higher taxes and ever failing public services".
Asked later about Mr Howard's put-down, Mr Jones said: "I can't help his emotions. If that is a slap-down that is his judgement. If he finds my statement profoundly disappointing well ... he's a bigger boy than that."
Mr Jones used his closing speech to again attack the "inappropriate and damaging" wave of workplace legislation coming out of Brussels. He said the latest proposed rules on cross-border mergers, being discussed yesterday by European Commissioners in Strasbourg, could force companies to put employee representatives on their boards where they could then exercise an effective veto over management decisions. He said the proposed company law directive was a classic example of how the commission failed to understand business in a globalised economy.
He said that with some 12 million people in Europe out of work, Brussels needed to do something to help increase employment. "China is eating our lunch and it looks like the commission is helping them to eat our dinner as well."