Skip to main content
The CBI conference: a game of two halves

The CBI Conference in Birmingham earlier this week was a game of two halves – quite literally - as many delegates sat down to watch the World Cup straight after Rishi Sunak’s speech on 24 November this year.

There was no shortage of razzmatazz in the packed room as the audience waited – just a little too long for busy people - to hear the vision of the new Prime Minister. Business needs economic stability to give confidence for long term investment. There was a sense of relief in the room this was the PM’s number one priority. Meanwhile the media focused on the CBI’s call to tackle the skills crisis by loosening immigration rules. 

The PM’s response was to promote visas for high achieving AI researchers and entrepreneurs. Addressing his backbencher’s concerns did nothing to please the crowd in front of him, who wanted more immediate answers to the labour shortage. The temperature in the room cooled as businesses seemed to run out of patience. He offered carrots such as the R & D funding increase and help for business energy bills post April, already outlined in last week’s budget. 

It was noticeable his speech lacked mention of net zero or levelling up, even though it is widely expected he will continue the Johnson agenda on both fronts. A strong indicator is his appointment of Michael Gove to DLUHC to continue his Levelling Up project. 

We are also seeing net zero rebranded as energy security to counter the growing (but false) narrative that net zero is the cause of higher energy bills. Rishi’s speech teetered on a tightrope of competing demands. He’s clearly setting out to rebuild relationships after a few rocky months, but his options are limited by the political tensions in his party.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition, who addressed day two of the Conference also led on the virtue of economic stability. He named climate change as the defining social challenge for the country. A modern industrial strategy based on green growth, underpinned by a strong skills base, is at the core of the Labour vision. While referring to apprenticeships as the ‘golden standard’, he also mentioned upskilling and a ‘devolution of training to the grassroots’. 

He reiterated his commitment to a publicly owned energy company to act as a catalyst and support for green energy start-ups. And his promise to invest in retrofit and energy efficiency solutions. He confidently predicted the country will be powered entirely by clean energy by 2030. His call for partnership and dialogue between business, government and trade unions to meet his ambitious goals, was met with warm applause.

Although a veteran of party conferences, this was my first time at the CBI Conference. The intimate scale of the event allowed plenty of access to a range of people. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a significant level of diversity. As ever with these events, the value is in the conversations, reading the mood music and picking up trends. It was confirmation that ECA’s priorities, net zero and skills for the future, were bang on trend.