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Tomorrow, Andrea Leadsom will have been Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for three months. It’s no surprise which topic has dominated that time – and it was evident speaking to her yesterday afternoon that business readiness for Brexit continues to play on her mind:

“We’ve got pretty much big businesses ready for Brexit in all possible permutations…but then at the other end if the spectrum we’ve got small and medium-sized business, some of whom are saying: ‘I’m just so busy I don’t really have the time or the energy to actually go out and make preparations for a No Deal Brexit unless I’m absolutely certain that’s what’s going to happen’.”

She revealed her frustration that the job of ensuring the private sector is preparing itself for every eventuality is being made more difficult by events in Westminster, specifically as a result of the Benn Act:

“One of the fundamental problems we’ve had is since the Benn Act, the Surrender Act, what’s happened is for lots of businesses prior to that coming in around half of all businesses surveyed…thought before the Benn Act that No Deal was likely, but following the Benn Act that dropped to about a quarter… There’s no doubt that Parliament trying to prevent No Deal is actually ironically meaning some businesses are therefore just not preparing for it.”

Leadsom can recite by heart a long list of measures in place to support and encourage businesses to prepare – from BEIS helplines and grants to trade bodies, through to webinars and road shows. However:

“We’ve done a lot, and there’s a lot of help out there but we’re still concerned. Partly because Parliament has forced us to delay before, there are some businesses saying ‘Well we got ready at the end of March and Parliament didn’t let you leave, and so here we are coming up the end of October and the Benn Act again says you’re not going to leave.”

Asked whether the Letwin amendment and the Speaker’s intervention on Monday had added to that problem, she replied they had “definitely, definitely exacerbated it, yes. I’m doing everything I possibly can, and you’ll be detecting the frustration in my voice…that what Parliament is doing is discouraging businesses from taking the steps they need to take to be ready for Brexit.”

With the emergence of the Prime Minister’s surprise deal last week, she sees imminent hope of good economic news if it can be steered successfully through Parliament. Indeed she expects a ‘bounceback’ generated by businesses making decisions which they had postponed amid political uncertainty:

“I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth…but certainly the very clear impression I have is that because this uncertainty is hampering investment and hiring and export decisions, by definition once we’ve got clarity, yes, I would expect there to be a bounceback from businesses. In the last few days, businesses I have met have been saying to me waiting to make an investment decision on x or y…we just need to know where we stand in order to make that decision.”

By implication, further delay by Parliament surely means a delay in unlocking those decisions.

In terms of post-Brexit policy, recent days have seen Labour MPs seek further guarantees from the Government in terms of regulation – does that amount to Leadsom’s policy flexibility being traded away for votes? She was keen to emphasise that “we want to be best in class” in terms of workers’ rights and environmental protection, dismissing “the politics of screaming at us across the Chamber that we’re trying to race to the bottom…that is absolutely not the case. We have some of the best rights for workers across the EU and some of the highest environmental regulations and we want to retain those.”

As a Leave campaigner, who did not exactly discourage comparisons to Margaret Thatcher when she stood for the Conservative Party leadership, the Business Secretary might surprise some by being relatively cool on the initial prospects for deregulation (though she similarly talked down the prospect of changing employment rules during the referendum itself):

“There isn’t an agenda that we want to divert from the EU for the sake of it. When we leave the EU we will have exactly the same rules and regulations, and there isn’t some ‘well let’s change it just because we can’. This is a case of wanting to be able as we move forward into the most extraordinary period of innovation…in areas like life sciences, technologies that take advantage of extraordinary opportunities in space, in productive gains right across our economy…we want to be able to regulate the same way as the EU where we want to do that but equally have better, stronger, more appropriate regulations where we want to. This isn’t some kind of agenda to deregulate, it’s an agenda to be free to improve and do better.”

Leadsom is not the only person who finds their thoughts moving hopefully to the prospect of a time in which Brexit is done and there is room once more to discuss other policies and ideas. Practically champing at the bit, she provided us with a tour through her plans for her brief beyond the B-word:

“I’ve set out three key priorities: the first one is the road to net zero, right up there as the top priority, leading the world in tackling climate change. The second priority is taking advantage of the extraordinary grand challenges that face us: life sciences giving everyone a longer and healthier life; fusion that will enable carbon-free electricity…different measures that will transform productivity, whether it’s robotics or Artificial Intelligence…that can enable us to become much more productive as an economy and I would hope to solve that productivity problem that has dogged us for over a decade…”

“…And then the third priority is to make the UK the best place in the world to work and to grow a business. The best place in the world to work because of our high standards, our commitment to workers’ rights, to greater flexibility, to providing more support for families, for bereaved parents, for protections for those returning from parental leave, and indeed for those who’ve got caring responsibilities for elderly relatives and so on. We want to strengthen the rights of workers, but we also want to support businesses…I’m very interested in the idea of a UK Development Bank that would help businesses to scale up to become the big brands of tomorrow, and would help to support many more small startups particularly female entrepreneurs, young entrepreneurs, [and] people from different ethnic backgrounds to get onto the ladder of owning and starting and growing their own business.”

And how about life after the other B-word: Bercow. Given that the Speaker with whom she crossed swords as Leader of the House is due to belatedly depart in a matter of days, what is she looking for in his successor?

“I’m a huge fan of Eleanor Laing. She’s a very old friend of mine and I know very well her style, which is very calm, very reassuring. And I think she’s completely incorruptible, so she in my view is by far and away the best candidate.”

66 comments for: Interview. Leadsom accuses Benn and Letwin of undermining efforts to prepare businesses for Brexit.

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