A period of silence from the CBI about the EU would be well advised

A period of silence from the CBI about the EU would be well advised

You won’t find too many in the Brexiteer community that have a kind word to speak about the CBI. “Complete Bloody Idiots” was the favourite backronym in February, when they managed to align themselves with Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to a customs union, prompting even The Independent to describe this as “Alice in Wonderland” politics.

Let’s rehearse why. The CBI was a protagonist for the ERM, it was a campaigner for Britain’s entry into the euro, it fought hard for Britain to stay in the EU – and that’s before you take into account, as some do, that its predecessor organisation was an advocate of WWII appeasement. A great history, some might say.

Vote Leave’s controversial stunt proclaiming it the “Voice of Brussels” was at least accurate, subverting the “Voice of Business” tagline that has now mysteriously disappeared from the CBI’s marketing material. Perhaps the CBI has finally realised that it is a membership organisation, with only around 1,500 direct members, and therefore can only be just one voice of business, among many others? I’m not counting my chickens on that.

Don’t get me wrong. There is definitely a place for organisations like the CBI, as well the FSB, the Chambers of Commerce network, and all the other trade organisations that profess to speak for business. But it’s a mistake for government ministers, the media and any others, to place it on a high pedestal and say that what the CBI says represents anything other than quite a lot of FTSE100 companies and some other corporate organisations.

So the CBI’s latest report lobbying for “deep alignment between UK and EU rules going forward”, for “a close regulatory relationship with the EU for decades to come”, and for decisions on perpetual EU regulation to “be made quickly” should be seen as just another voice, from one sector of business that likes its regulations. Far be it for me to add that it is from an organisation that has got it wrong on these issues repeatedly over the past few decades.

And let me be fair to the CBI. It argues that businesses are not looking for a bonfire of regulation, now. And it adds that ensuring regulatory certainty and continuity is the right approach for the Government to take for as long as negotiations are ongoing. That’s certainly the Government’s line, for now, as it extends EU regulatory control until the beginning of 2021. There will be no bonfire of regulation under this current Prime Minister, and some may think that’s sensible.

So the issue is not about current regulation, which looks set to mainly continue for the time being, and may extend into the Twenties as we adjust our place in the world. It’s about future regulation, as we sign trade deals which necessitate us to review regulations, as we keep competitive among the top nations, and as we realise that future generations do not need the explosion of regulations outpouring from Brussels.

Most governments profess to believe in deregulation, particularly Conservative ones. But for every current regulation, there are ten lobbyists saying it has to stay, and it is a bold government not to listen to these siren voices. The truth is that bold regulatory reform, so prized among Brexiteers and a key Brexit bonus in the economic forecasts of people like Patrick Minford, will not come as soon as some of us might hope. But it is vital, if we’re going to make long terms gains from our decision to leave the EU, that we do not tie ourselves into EU regulation “for decades to come” – and that we do not say we should have “deep alignment between UK and EU rules going forward”.

Most sensible ministers know this, of course. But it never hurts to remind them that a report from an organisation that has recently aligned itself with Corbyn is just that. The CBI should continue to lobby, by all means, but ministers must realise who the CBI is speaking for – and perhaps who it is not. There are lots of dynamic businesses out there which vehemently disagree with the nonsense from the CBI, and their voice is sometimes less heard.

And perhaps the CBI needs to be quiet about the EU for a time, to build back up the respect that it has so sadly lost.