Firms’ goodwill for Boris Johnson is being tested to the limit

With businesses struggling amid an ever-shifting set of lockdown rules, some are now on the attack

Boris Johnson

Richard Caring’s patience was wearing thin. As he digested the latest Government measures for tackling the pandemic, the owner of The Ivy and private members club Annabel’s gave a withering assessment of Boris Johnson and his acolytes.

“Boris is unlucky that he doesn’t have anyone of strength standing next to him,” he said. “The Government looks weak and befuddled.”

“The scientists are capable when it comes to science, but they don’t have a 360-degree vision.

“Of course if we lock everybody up we will get some control of the virus, but the damage that is being done to businesses is becoming permanent. What people are suffering financially and mentally is horrific.”

Caring’s anger underscores the unavoidable problem facing the Prime Minister. The near-universal support from business at December’s general election is coming under intense strain as the Government grasps for a coronavirus strategy.

It has been a swift souring of relations. Chief executives had put aside their Brexit fears and rallied behind Johnson to prevent a corporate raid from Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

But with mistakes piling up over the pandemic and businesses struggling to survive under an ever-shifting set of lockdown rules, once loyal business voices are on the attack.

For Johnson, it is a scenario he was keen to avoid. His predecessor Theresa May cultivated a frosty relationship with business after giving corporate leaders the cold shoulder over her Brexit plans.

Johnson wanted to strike a different tone. He brought in former Sky operating chief Andrew Griffith as his business adviser to forge stronger relationships with big companies and the City.

Griffith went on to become the Tory MP for Arundel and the South Downs, but the intention remained, with some of his responsibility passed on to Johnson’s chief strategic adviser Sir Edward Lister.

Since then, reports had emerged that Johnson wanted to overhaul five business councils set up by May to create a single committee of business advisers that would be closer to the Government.

While tensions remain between his chief adviser Dominic Cummings and business body the Confederation of British Industry, Johnson has been keen to kill the perception he does not care about business.

It has been a tall order considering the accusations he faced two years ago of allegedly saying “f--- business” in response to the concerns of big firms over Brexit.

However, these attempts to smooth relations have been overshadowed by the pandemic.

Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, won early support for splurging tens of billions of pounds on keeping people employed and companies afloat during lockdown.

But with the recovery spluttering, unemployment at its highest rate in three years and swathes of the consumer economy teetering on collapse, business leaders are losing faith in Johnson’s grip over the tumult.

Justin King, the former boss of Sainsbury’s and a non-executive director of M&S, said the erosion of goodwill with business has come from ministers “flip flopping” on decisions.

“If you take offices: they said ‘let’s get people back to work at the start of September’, then U-turned on the decision within two weeks,” he said. “Companies have invested a lot of money, energy and capital with their people in terms of getting staff back to work.

“That is where the [political] capital has been reduced. Businesses have tried to play their part and then been let down by that change. A lot of management teams feel it has been incredibly difficult to retain the trust of their people [due to the messaging from ministers].

“The Government nailed themselves to something that was unsustainable. They wrapped themselves in the clothes of science because it suited that moment in time, and they must truly regret that they did that now.”

Company bosses are also becoming exasperated by the mixed messaging from central and local government.

Confusion over which authorities or departments hold the final decision over lockdown measures has inflamed accusations that Johnson has not got a grip of the crisis.

John Treharne, founder of The Gym Group, said talks over lockdown rules can descend into a “he said, she said scenario, which is a disaster for anyone running a business”.

“We were told gyms had to close in Liverpool,” he said. “We talked to the Liverpool council, which apparently approved it. They say it had nothing to do with them, they don’t want to close gyms down. We go back to the Government and they say it was Liverpool, which decided to close gyms down.”

Despite the criticism, all is not lost for the Prime Minister. The personal battles he has endured with the virus and the monumental task of steering the nation through the crisis has attracted compassion from business leaders.

That has bought him time up until now, but that tank of goodwill could soon run dry if attempts to wrest control of the virus through track and trace continue to misfire.

Sir Martin Sorrell, executive chairman of S4 Capital, the digital advertising agency, is mindful of the enormous struggles Johnson has faced.

He said it was a “hell of a burden” for him to go through and “you’ve got to sympathise” but when you compare the UK’s response to other nations “it hasn’t been handled well”.

Private equity baron Jon Moulton, the ex-Tory party donor and Brexit backer, said much of what Johnson has done is “clearly not hard capitalism and some dislike that”.

“Boris is clearly struggling, but with a horrible problem,” he added. “Track and trace has been a complete shambles – should see a head or two rolling on that.”

Yet City tycoon Peter Hargreaves, who donated £1m to the Tory party campaign, despite describing Johnson as a “buffoon” just a year earlier, urged businesses to be more fair.

He said big businesses assume Johnson has a “magic wand to wave, and all will be right with the world”.

“Boris Johnson has the hardest job in Europe,” the Brexiteer co-founder of Hargreaves Lansdown added. “Protecting the NHS, trying to help the workforce and the economy while at the same time fighting with a bunch of Eurocrats over Brexit and trying to keep a load of backbenchers happy. And don’t forget he is possibly still getting over his own Coronavirus aftermath. He needs all the support he can get.”

For Caring, the Prime Minister’s decision to bring in a three-tier lockdown system was an encouraging sign. In his eyes, the move showed the economic argument was no longer being out gunned by the concerns of the scientists.

Yet he believes an even greater focus must be put on the needs of business to prevent long-lasting harm to the British economy.

“In the last day or two, I have admired Boris for the first time in a long time,” he says. “He’s trying to look at keeping the economy going at the same time as controlling the virus.

“I would say that 85pc of the economy is in a dire state and everyday that goes by without the confidence of some sight into the future is doing permanent damage. We need somebody to be brave, intelligent and more determined to grasp this situation. At what point does the economy become as important as this virus?”