Hammer blow for Tories as ex-Cameron skills tsar declares: Labour is now the party of business

Exclusive: Ex-CBI chief says business leaders report a dramatic shift in attitude towards Labour

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Monday 13 February 2023 17:39 GMT
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Related: Labour’s newest MP warns Tories their ‘time is up’ after winning byelection

The Tories suffered another major blow today as a top businessman who worked for David Cameron showered praise on Labour.

Former CBI president Paul Drechsler says Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is “winning” the economic argument against Rishi Sunak among Britain’s bosses thanks to a “seismic” change in the party’s image.

Writing for The Independent, Mr Drechsler says high street giants and other top firms now talk with “warmth and optimism” about Labour.

“The Conservatives are not just losing the argument, Labour is winning it,” he writes, adding that Sir Keir has restored ‘‘sanity” to Labour after Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing leadership.

The intervention comes as a leading business figure Iain Anderson quit the Tories after nearly 40 years and switched his allegiance to “impressive” Labour – citing Boris Johnson’s alleged “f*** business” comments.

Mr Drechsler, who was appointed the government’s “skills tsar” when Mr Cameron was prime minister, singles out rising Labour star, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, for praise.

Mr Drechsler’s comments mark a dramatic change from just three years ago when Mr Corbyn was seen as a major threat by most people in business.

The industry leader writes: “The change in the way Labour is perceived can be attributed largely to Rachel Reeves. A lot of influential people in business feel the same as I do.”

He also pays tribute to Starmer for forging a close partnership with business. Starmer has “put new colours on the ship and sailed Labour into sensible and sane waters” after the Corbyn years, says Mr Drechsler.

“There is a sense of dramatic change in many boardrooms and corridors of power. Chief executives of big high street firms are starting to talk with warmth and even optimism towards Labour. This is a seismic change.

“When I talk to business leaders now, for the first time in 20 years, the conversation turns to what Labour might do positively with business and whereas before this might have been about mitigating damage, now it is far more positive, even reassuring,” he adds.

Mr Drechsler, the current chair of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) UK, said most British business leaders were “small c conservatives who want stability and certainty”, but had grown frustrated by turmoil in the Tory party.

The former CBI boss, who opposed the UK’s exit from the EU, said both Brexit and never-ending rows in Mr Sunak’s party have upset the assumption that the Conservatives are the natural ally of business.

Former CBI President Paul Drechsler
Former CBI President Paul Drechsler (PA)

Meanwhile, Mr Anderson, founder of the public relations giant Cicero, said he was switching to Labour in part because of the Tories’ plan to stoke a so-called culture war using vulnerable groups.

The business chief said discussions with Tory insiders had led him to believe that Mr Sunak would ramp up the tactics in the run-up to the 2024 general election – with issues around trans people’s rights likely to be exploited.

“I don’t want any part of a culture war – I’m a big tent person, so I’ve got to the end of the road with the party. Some of the ads on Twitter on the trans issue, which is complex and sensitive, look Trumpian to me,” he told The Independent.

Mr Anderson revealed that he was “impressed” by Sir Keir and Ms Reeves when he first met them last month, and said he was keen to help them get more inward investment into the UK.

“Keir strikes me as someone who is capable of creating sense of trust among business leaders. We need stability. And we need something fresh,” he added.

Labour has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds from new business donors in recent months, Electoral Commission records show. Clive Lewis, chair of River Island, gave £100,000 to Labour in August, while Fred Story, chief executive of Carlisle housebuilder Story Homes also donated £100,000 in September.

John Allan – the Tesco chair who has talked enthusiastically about a Labour government, saying “there’s only one team on the field” – was among the business chiefs attending Sir Keir’s business conference at Canary Wharf in December.

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