Cameron's 'snobbery' speech confuses his message

A speech by David Cameron on Thursday gave us a confusing view of his attitude to business. Will his line be clearer by Budget day?

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
It must be hard work, being the Prime Minister. One minute, you’ve got a rabble of angry pitchfork-wavers demanding the head of whichever banking executive’s six-figure bonus is due to be considered next. The next, everyone’s up in arms because you’re not doing enough to support business. So you can understand why, at Thursday’s Business in the Community summit (the charity, headed by Prince Charles, was celebrating its 30th anniversary) David Cameron called for a bit more love for businesses, condemning the ‘dangerous rhetoric’ that says ‘wealth creation is somehow anti-social’. ‘Frankly, I’m tired of this snobbery,’ he said.

Naturally, those present (representing everyone from Accenture to Zurich) were delighted: the CBI said businesses ‘will be relieved to hear the Prime Minister condemn the anti-business rhetoric that has soured recent public debate’. ‘Creating jobs and wealth for our society has to be a source of pride, not shame,’ said its director-general, John Cridland.

But it’s hard to forget that just two weeks ago, Cameron stood back with his fingers in his ears while Labour leader Ed Miliband threatened to lead a commons assault on RBS CEO Stephen Hester, who agreed to waive his £1m bonus as a result. Ditto, the stripping of disgraced banker Fred Goodwin’s knighthood: at the time, Cameron said it was the ‘right decision’.

During his speech on Thursday, the PM tried to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ business. He dusted off the old Big Society analogy again (we thought that concept had been quietly put out of its misery a while ago?), saying it’s ‘all about people recognising that they have obligations beyond paying their taxes and obeying the law - not just doing no harm, but doing good. This applies to businesses just as much as it does to individuals.’

Back before he was elected,  the term ‘engine room of the economy’ was bandied about a lot. Businesses, said Cameron at the time, are the engine room of the economy: they must be allowed to work freely. Only then will the recovery begin.

For the Government to stick its oar in when it sees fit, then start trilling about ‘snobbery’ when the pressure’s off, is worrying, particularly so close to the Budget - when businesses will need more support than ever.

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