Coronavirus: Boris Johnson says sorry to businesses for ‘nightmare’ as new lockdown looms

When Boris Johnson belatedly agreed to offer “remarks to business” to the CBI Conference, delegates tuning in virtually would have done so with keener interest than usual.

Until now the prime minister’s most notable message to the boss class was, famously, “f*** business”, an off-the-cuff remark offered when, as foreign secretary, he was asked about concerns from major employers including Airbus and BMW about a no-deal Brexit.

That was back in June 2018, but the implication of that off-hand expletive has followed Mr Johnson into Downing Street.

Captains of industry are not used to being ignored by prime ministers, particularly not Conservative ones, but Brexit has driven a wedge between big business and a party with which it once assumed a natural affinity.

Mr Johnson has done little to build bridges since the election, the distrust sewn by Brexit heightened by coronavirus, and the piecemeal response to the second lockdown sprung on employers and staff with just four days’ notice.

Two days after his scheduled speech was delayed by preparations for the second lockdown, the prime minister offered some olive branches in a short pre-recorded address.

He began with two apologies, the first for his belated appearance and the second for “all of you facing the frustration and the nightmare of the COVID world”.

The prime minister thanked companies for their efforts to make workplaces COVID-secure and then insisted that the lockdown would be lifted as scheduled.

“Believe me, we will end these autumn measures when they expire on December 2,” he said.

He then rattled through a list of boilerplate commitments to increase productivity, build new infrastructure and champion green technologies, praised business for its central role in leading the recovery, and ended his six-minute speech by insisting the door of Number 10 was always open.

CBI president Lord Bilimoria looked delighted, burying the hatchet in the ground, as opposed to between the prime minister’s shoulders, describing his speech as “the Boris I have known for years, the pro-business prime minister”.

But what Mr Johnson did not say may linger longer than the warm words.

Just 57 days before the transition period ends with companies and workers facing fundamental uncertainty, there was not a word on Brexit.

Mr Johnson’s central policy continues to alienate major employers, particularly those for whom the UK is a bridge into Europe.

His insistence that sovereignty has no price remains deeply unpopular with those companies who will bear the cost.

And there was nothing on what this COVID winter will hold when the tier system returns.

He did not address the CBI’s call for clarity on how restrictions will be eased, or for financial support, including the 80% furlough scheme, to be extended into the New Year.

Mr Johnson sounded more like a friend to business than previously, but they wouldn’t swear by it.

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