Nick Faith is Director of WPI Srategy.
At first glance, the recent decision by shareholders in GKN, a British engineering company which produces components for the aerospace and automobile industry, to accept a deal to sell the company to Melrose Industries, a buy-out group which specialises in turning poor performing companies around, is not particularly interesting to the average Conservative voter.
But this isn’t just a story about two British companies fighting over which management team is best placed to improve its performance. It is more a fundamental issue about the merits of open competitive markets, and the role of the government in policing those markets.
During the lead up to the GKN shareholder vote, Unite ran a politically savvy campaign drumming up cross-party support to oppose the Melrose bid. They implored the government to intervene on the grounds that “technology and jobs risk being shipped abroad” and that “national security could be at risk”. They even suggested that “ministers’ plans for the UK to be a leader in electric vehicles could be derailed”.
The problem with Unite’s argument was that, under the Enterprise Act, ministers can only block a takeover on grounds of media plurality, financial stability or national security issues. As it appeared that none of these issues related to the deal, Greg Clark appeared to have gone further than was necessary by extracting binding commitments from Melrose on future investments and disposals.
Gavin Williamson then entered the debate. He is reported to have concerns that the deal could have implications for Britain’s national security. If he decides to pursue this line of argument, the Business Secretary will have no option but to refer the deal to the Competition and Markets Authority.
Every time such a notice has been issued on national security grounds in the past, the deals have been allowed to proceed following a preliminary assessment. In each of those cases, the buyer was foreign and gave the government guarantees on how it would operate. Melrose has already given such assurances. Given Melrose is also a British headquartered company run by a British CEO, and that GKN does not rank in the top 50 suppliers to the MoD, it is highly unlikely that national security could be in jeopardy.
An intervention by the Defence Secretary could also have serious unintended consequences on the UK economy. Government intervention in a deal between two private companies will fray the nerves of business leaders and investors. In the context of Brexit, such a move would send yet another signal that Britain is not the open, free trading nation it purports to be.
At a time when the very concept of open, competitive markets is being called into question by the Left, the last thing the British economy needs is for a Conservative government to play the interventionist card. By doing so, they would simply play into Labour’s hands.
This is not to say that where there is a clear case of market abuse, the government or regulator shouldn’t step in as a referee. But intervening in a deal which on the face of it appears to be about improving the performance of a company is a risky move. The populist appeal of opposing the takeover of GKN may look attractive, but dig into the details and it is hard to see how such a move is justified.
If Conservatives think that matching Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-market approach to business transactions will boost their political standing, I fear they may be in for a shock. The Conservative Party’s greatest electoral asset has always been its ability to manage the finances and work constructively with the business community. By undermining business investment in a manner which is more akin to France’s protectionist approach, the party could find themselves heading to the next general election with inward investment decreasing, which will ultimately impact jobs, wages and living standards. That would increase Corbyn’s appeal and move him one step closer to Downing Street.