MT at the CBI: Even gloomy Vince can't spoil bullish mood

The gathering of some of the nation's best business brains showed UK plc is upbeat about recovery. Well, on the whole at least.

by Hannah Prevett
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
It wouldn’t have been a big surprise if most people at yesterday’s CBI conference had been decidedly down in the dumps. After all, it took place mere days after George Osborne unveiled his swingeing cuts – and more to the point, Vince 'Curmudgeon' Cable was on the agenda.  But from Prime Minister David Cameron’s high-octane opening speech, to the last panel of the day, the mood was decidedly bullish. Even Cable ended on a positive note. Crikey...

The PM tried to set the tone by promising that the Government will focus on creating ‘a new economic dynamism’ in the UK, to ‘build real confidence in our future.’ He also spoke at length at length about entrepreneurship and the part small businesses will play in the country’s economic future. ‘Together we can make the years ahead the most entrepreneurial and dynamic in our country’s history,’ he finished yesterday, thumping all tubs in the immediate vicinity.
 
But he knows as well as we do that the real hard work is yet to begin. The measures announced yesterday – the £200m earmarked for ‘innovation centres’, the £60m to be invested in offshore windfarms – are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what needs to be done. And there was already concern in some corners of the room that smaller companies, or less well-known sectors, are going to be forgotten in the PM’s grand plans. One owner of a small professional services company asked where the cash was going to come from to help really small, ‘micro’ companies like his get off the ground – a question that the PM struggled to answer.

Cameron wasn’t the only one under fire yesterday. The small business brigade were extremely sceptical about Barclays’ president Bob Diamond’s claims that the ‘banks are continuing to lend’. The problems small and growing businesses have had gaining access to finance have been well documented; even Diamond himself admitted that business lending is down 6%, and small business lending down 3%. But he insisted that this is what ‘one would expect at this point in the cycle’, and that ‘we are committed to supporting businesses which are small, medium and large.’ We suspect some would disagree...

Still, the good news is that by and large, all the speakers seemed relatively cheerful - even Bob Dudley, who recently took over the mantle from Tony Hayward at BP. Throughout his poised and considered speech, he displayed a real sense of optimism - not to mention a determination to salvage the company’s ‘battered reputation’. The audience were a pretty positive bunch too: when asked by Jon Snow how many of them expect to grow and take on new recruits in the next year, almost every one them raised their hand.

Even Cable managed to finish his speech by telling delegates what we have to be positive about in Blighty – world-class companies, skills, universities, a good export market and so on. Although even that couldn’t persuade the Business Secretary to crack a smile...

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