Analysis: Shift to Farage's view on jobs poses challenge to business lobby

Big business lacks a coherent position on the in/out debate on Europe despite public opinion moving towards UKIP's view that Britain leaving would be good for jobs after the Clegg/Farage debates.

Farage and Clegg during the first of two televised debates (credit: AFP/Getty Images)
Farage and Clegg during the first of two televised debates (credit: AFP/Getty Images)

There was a 12 per cent swing according to YouGov’s polling of people who watched the second of the televised face-offs between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage on Wednesday night.

Despite the Liberal Democrat leader’s insistence that Britain risked losing jobs if it exits Europe, the proportion believing this would be good for jobs and employment rose from 29 per cent before the debate to 38 per cent afterwards.

With the opposing view dropping from 42 per cent to 39 per cent, Clegg’s gambit appears to have backfired on the traditionally pro-Europe big business community that Farage attacked him for supporting.

This may be a wake-up call that if business wants to stay in Europe this is not necessarily what the public wants to vote for, believes Bell Pottinger Public Affairs chairman Tim Collins.

The business lobby, which made a largely united push for Britain to stay in Europe in the last referendum in 1975, is a bit more divided on the issue and its tactics these days.

Both Business for New Europe, a group chaired by RLM Finsbury chairman Roland Rudd, and Business for Britain, led by Taxpayers' Alliance founder Matthew Elliott, want the country to stay in a reformed European Union but disagree on how to influence the EU.

Elliott tells PRWeek that in the wake of the debate Business for Britain will redouble its efforts in support of David Cameron’s plan to give the British people an in/out referendum.

"The bulk of the business community reject the approach of blindly going along with the status quo, Clegg's position, or leaving tomorrow, what Farage wants," says Elliott. "They want a serious renegotiation, buttressed with a set date for a referendum."

Rudd was unavailable for comment today, but last month welcomed Ed Miliband’s clarification that Labour did not want a referendum unless further powers were ceded to Europe.

Mirroring this difference, Bell Pottinger’s clients are not united on whether or how to publicly campaign for European membership, according to Collins, who adds that the debates have illustrated the challenge they face.

"Some of Farage’s most powerful lines were to say that big business and rich people are of course in favour of EU membership and unrestricted migration, but most ordinary people lose out from that.

"The reputation of big business has taken a big knock since 2008 and more voters are open to the argument that the interests of big business are not the same as the interests of the UK population as a whole."

Other lobbying industry figures agree with Collins that after Clegg’s performance business is not exactly rushing to the aid of the deputy PM and the ‘in’ argument.

"While the vast majority of the business community is supportive, many are keeping their counsel for now," says Nick Laitner, MD of public affairs at MHP. "Business leaders appear to be waiting for the results of both the Scottish referendum and next year’s general election to see where the land lies."

Alex Deane, head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick, says: "There's still a way to go and support may yet emerge. Let's agree that if Clegg is going to carry on ‘debating’ like that, he's going to need all the help he can get."

There is a definite fear in the business community that speaking up could backfire, according to Collins.

"Big businesses are and should be worried that the more they speak about how much they would be opposed to UK withdrawal, the more they would be playing into Farage’s hands because he has this narrative that business is somehow out of kilter with the interests of the wider population.

"I think business would prefer to write the cheque than be the spokespeople and they are casting around to see if they can find anybody who is popular in other contexts who can front up staying in."

It is worth concluding with Collins’ observation that the public reaction shows that the ‘in’ side needs to raise its game.

"The debates have shown that the default assumption, which some people rather lazily made, that as soon as you debate the issues opinion can only shift towards staying in, is not necessarily true."




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