Leading article: A strange business

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It is not often that you get the leaders of all three main political parties addressing a CBI national conference. Still more unusual is the sight of all three leaders of the m ain parties addressing the Conference on the same day. That is a sure sign that an election is in the offing. It's also a tribute to the fact that, at a time of continuing recession, each of the parties want to look as if the issues of unemployment, growth and private sector investment are uppermost in their minds. As indeed they should be.

Not that we got much new or contentious from Messrs Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Gordon Brown emphasised once again his view that it was too early to start withdrawing financial support for the economy. David Cameron repeated his warning that government finances were now dire and could not be sustained without an early effort to bring down the deficit. Nick Clegg developed the Lib Dem theme that what was needed was a radical look forward to find ways of creating a "new competitive, sustainable economy for the long-term." All good electioneering stuff. But the interesting question is not what they had to say to business but what business needs to say to them.

It is here that the Confederation's stance is both more ambiguous and more divided than it might be. The CBI has always been pulled in two different directions by the often contradictory needs of big business and small. Those divisions have been made a good deal sharper by the more recent antagonism between business and the banking industry. Large firms have been able to gain new finance on the bond and equity markets, thanks largely to the Government's quantitative easing programme. Small firms have still been constrained by the reluctance of the banks to lend. The CBI leadership in response has blurred its message.

And yet the need to revive private sector investment remains absolutely crucial to any recovery. If business is to get its view across to government, it is going to need to do a lot better job of convincing the public as well as politicians of its needs. Just sitting there listening to party leaders trading generalities is not going to help either it or the economy.

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