Politicians 'slick but shallow' at CBI

Cartoon on display at CBI conference
Image caption David Cameron was the first star turn at this year's CBI conference

For a moment, it looked as though the CBI had come up with a radical answer to the UK's economic challenges.

"We need to arm our employees," read the message on the animated display above the conference podium.

But fortunately, the sentence didn't end there. A moment later, the second half of the statement flashed up: "with higher work skills."

It was part of a set of whizzy graphics designed to promote the CBI's new report, A Better Off Britain, "or Bob for short," as the organisation's deputy director general, Katja Hall, helpfully put it.

To be fair, that militaristic mishap was a rare glitch in an otherwise well-organised event.

Business leaders were left in no doubt that this was their last gathering before the 2015 general election: just six months to go, as the Liberal Democrats' Nick Clegg reminded them twice in 10 minutes.

Also appearing were Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour's Ed Miliband, there to make vote-grabbing pitches for the right to run the UK's economy.

No UKIP, however: in the eyes of the CBI, you just haven't earned it yet, Nigel.

Body language

Mr Miliband did his best to set the economic agenda for the conference before it had even started, by briefing the business press in advance on the content of his speech.

Taking as his theme the dangers of the UK leaving the European Union, he wrote a piece for influential London freesheet City AM, which then rewarded him with the sceptical headline: Ed Miliband stokes fears over Brexit.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Nick Clegg distanced himself from his coalition partners over the EU

As expected, Mr Clegg also took a pro-EU stance, accusing his Conservative coalition partners of saying, "If we don't get what we want, we'll throw our teddies out of the pram."

But Mr Cameron barely mentioned Europe in his initial speech, preferring to showcase domestic themes. Only after questions from the floor did he address the issue in greater depth.

Conference delegates judged the trio not just on what they said, but how they said it, picking up on their body language just as much as their ideas.

They noticed that while Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg stood at the front of the stage and spoke without notes, Mr Miliband preferred to stand at the lectern.

"Cameron was very slick, he knows his stuff, he stood out front and engaged the audience," said Jonathan Elliott, general manager of Xerox's health business. "He inspires a lot of confidence, he's got a good balance of humour and facts.

"Clegg was trying to be engaging, but stuttered on the facts. He didn't have a completely thought-through approach.

"Miliband, standing right behind the lectern, didn't inspire confidence. He was making notes as people asked questions and he was dismissive of points people made."

Groan of dismay

Delegates gave a respectful hearing to all three party leaders and resented any effort to deviate from the economic issues.

The most startling reaction from the audience was the mass groan of dismay that greeted an ITV News reporter's attempt to challenge Mr Miliband on the alleged "crisis of confidence" in his party leadership.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Unlike his political rivals, Ed Miliband stood behind the lectern on stage

Many felt that the Labour leader came across as more human when he acknowledged the recent press coverage of his political travails.

At the same time, however, not everyone was convinced that the answers on offer were sufficient to address the challenges ahead.

"They're all grappling with globalisation and how hard it is to create wealth," said Mike Plaut, managing director of Wales-based hotel room electrical equipment manufacturer Northmace.

"They're all aware of how fragile everything is. We're doing well in Britain, but we export to 100 countries and the rest of the world really is a mess.

"There are huge problems and there are no easy fixes. But they're saying what the audience wants to hear. I don't think there's any depth there."

Change from within

In many ways, one of the most enlightening contributions came from a Swedish politician, Fredrik Reinfeldt of the Moderate Party, who was his country's prime minister until he lost power two months ago in a general election.

In his speech, he spoke up for efforts to change the EU from within, hailing the fact that Sweden's EU commissioner now had the trade portfolio and was in a position to fight for completion of the single market.

"In cross-border service trading, a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of obstacles are still there," he said.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Sweden's Fredrik Reinfeldt gave another view of the EU

Although one delegate mocked the obsession in Brussels with harmonisation of standards, Mr Reinfeldt pointed out that this was the only way to prevent backdoor protectionism, quoting the example of Italian fire safety rules that stopped Swedish furniture makers exporting their chairs there.

"You have a different kind of fire in Italy?" he asked.

Mr Reinfeldt said the only way to achieve change in the EU was from within: "You can't stand outside the EU and say, 'You in there, you must shape up.'"

His approach won him friends, with one member of the audience saying how "refreshing" it was to hear a speech on Europe that was "not just about slogans".

While the UK's politicians all strove to come across as the chief executive's chief executive, Mr Reinfeldt's slightly professorial manner was clearly from a different leadership manual altogether.

But many delegates had a good word to say for "the Swedish guy" during the ensuing coffee break, making him one of the quiet hits of the conference.

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