Mel Stride MP has nice digs, a corner office at the Treasury, overlooking the Palace of Westminster. He’s got a correspondingly posh job title too, Financial Secretary to the Treasury and Paymaster General, or FST to his friends.
That makes Stride one of the most senior ministers in the most powerful department in government, heavily involved in various decisions that directly impact businesses big and small.
Since joining the Treasury from an education brief last year, Stride pushed for the change in the way business rates are calculated, from using RPI to CPI inflation measures, to be brought forward two years to this April. He also slowed down the timetable for digitising the tax interface to give small firms more time to prepare.
Stride’s pro-business credentials come from his earlier career as founder of Venture Marketing Group (originally called Careers in Industry), an events company of which he’s still the controlling shareholder.
MT: How did you start your business?
Stride: When I was President of the Oxford Union, we had a debate on why young people went into the City rather than industry. One reason was the perception that industry was all nuts and bolts, going down coal mines, not the sort of thing bright people wanted to do. I had this idea of getting together a number of industrial companies, taking them to Oxford and showing the students that it was more than that.
A few years later, when I was working for a bank, I decided to take the day off and phone every chairman of the top 100 industrial companies. To my amazement, the chairman of Shell actually picked up the phone. I was only 24 at the time. I said, ‘Oh, Sir Peter [Holmes], I’ve got this idea...’
He listened to me for about 10 minutes, then said ‘Well I don’t know if you’ve got a good idea, but what are you doing for lunch tomorrow? I’ll send my car to pick you up.’
He backed me and introduced me to all these other chairmen and CEOs. Before I knew it, I had this quite substantial event opened by the director of the CBI and I was on The Today Programme. It was just at the time of the big crash in 1987, and here was someone coming out of the City saying go into industry. From that, I got into trade shows and franchising.
MT: How did your experience of running a business for over 20 years affect your approach to politics?
Stride: Firstly, every pound matters. Everything has to be value for money, because in this environment we can’t squander anything. Secondly, it’s the job of government to get out of the way of business. Don’t overload them with regulations - sensibly regulate them of course, because the markets have no morality – and then incentivise them, give them low taxes.
MT: You became an MP in 2010. Were you prepared for the level of scrutiny?
Stride: The really interesting question is whether politicians really are different from any other group. In terms of bad behaviour, there’s been plenty in politics and it’s deeply regrettable. But if you took 650 doctors or teachers and applied the same level of scrutiny that’s applied to the Commons, would you not find there were some people doing things they shouldn’t?
I don’t know to what extent politics is rotten in that sense, but I do know we should operate to a higher standard than just about anybody else.
MT: How much of your bandwidth is taken up with Brexit?
Stride: Quite a lot! If something comes along and takes up a lot of your time, it’s hard to say that it doesn’t impact other areas. But equally I’m not saying that those other areas – tax, encouraging entrepreneurship, wealth creation etc – come to a standstill. There’s a lot happening in that space as well.
MT: Businesses could do with some clarity on Brexit. What’s your message for them?
Stride: This was never going to be easy, but we’re making very good progress. My overarching sense is that it will be rocky, it will have its difficult moments, but we have momentum and I think we’ll be okay at the end of the day.
The area I’m looking at particularly is customs, making sure that we have frictionless borders and trade continues unimpeded. Will we be in a position where everything’s bang on for day one, with all the Is dotted and Ts crossed? That would be unrealistic. But I’m absolutely certain that those trade flows will be happening, and we’ll move forward.
Image: HM Treasury