Graham Robb's speech at the Yorkshire & North East IoD Director of the Year Awards


Today we are going to give awards to Directors of the businesses that are making significant contributions to the economies of the North East and Yorkshire.

These are people who get up every morning dedicated to the task of making their businesses better, improving profits, generating the funds that employ people and add to a sense of economic security for the entire society.

The people we will recognise are examples of dedicated of Northern business leaders who work hard for the success we all eventually share in. Politicians believe in pennies from heaven; our members know that pennies from heaven are earned here on earth.

It is particularly important to recognise these people tonight because without them the country would be in an even tighter spot that it is today.

This time last week events were set in motion that have put Britain at the centre of the world’s economic news.

I had originally written this speech to be about the opportunities presented by the Northern Powerhouse – along with many others I had expected a Remain vote. But it was not to be, the people have spoken and although I voted to Remain I’m sure that in this room many will have voted leave; the Institute of Directors was very sensible to allow free debate and nobody lost their job or role at the IoD for expressing a personal view.

This week our Director General, Simon Walker, expressed the official view of the Institute when he said:

“There is no point crying over spilled milk. We will not lose our faith in the ability of British firms to overcome these obstacles.”

Simon Walker was quite right. I go further, my own point of view is that there is no time for political recriminations. The first priority is to steady the economy and our political leaders should come together to heal their divisions. Too many people are taking to the airwaves and are in danger of talking us into recession. Unfortunately the former Labour Leader talked yesterday about a, quote, “national crisis”.  Also, a respected former Foreign Secretary was on American TV on Sunday. He was asked if there was anything positive that could come after Brexit. He failed to take the opportunity to remind US viewers that Britain is open for business, a great place to invest, committed to wider international markets, innovative, productive, educated and entrepreneurial – instead he contemplated our current woes and failed to put the best arguments for Britain.

The City has had a shock but the first snap poll of business leaders by the IoD suggests calm decisions will be taken by real world business leaders. Nearly two-thirds of IoD members think the result is negative for their business. But a third say hiring will continue at the same pace, less than a quarter will put a freeze on recruitment, and only 5% said they will make redundancies.

In business it is time for cools heads to make best of a new era. The Bank of England has rightly reassured the world that it has the capability to ease market turbulence. When I started work on Monday I was determined to attend to my business as usual and I’m sure IoD members kept calm and carried on.

There are opportunities in the years ahead; the UK should promote widespread free trade with an international outlook, not retreat into any kind of isolation.

The Prime Minister deserves credit for an honourable resignation speech and, although his legacy will always be our departure from the EU, he should also be remembered for returning the country to economic growth and changing the focus of London Government towards our ‘Northern Powerhouse’, something I hope will continue under his successor.

And speaking of his successor; the Conservative MPs who chose the short list next month should heed at least three of the four tests published by William Hague on Tuesday:

  1. What do you want out of our new relationship with the EU; is it to join the European Economic area and its requirement for free movement or is controlling immigration to take precedence?
  2. Can you reassure business quickly and effectively that some of the opportunities we might gain as a result of Brexit are worth sticking around for?
  3. Can you circumnavigate the Nationalists and keep the UK together?

It is appropriate to comment on these things tonight. Business leadership involves navigating stormy waters every single day. It is about having the drive and determination to set a course, swerve obstacles in your path and reach your destination all the better for having embarked on the journey. I doubt many of the IoD Chartered Directors would have identified the Brexit risk and then not had a plan to deal with it if it came about.

In the real world Ministers also need to deal with the mundane issues that cost businesses money and deny opportunities the Britain. For example yesterday, the National Audit Office released a damning report on the Government’s progress on cutting red tape. The NAO said that the official target to bring down the burden of red tape by £10bn “misses the point by not truly reducing costs on businesses”.

The IoD wants our new Prime Minister to complete an audit of all business regulation, whether domestic or from Brussels. Consumer protection and product standards must be maintained, but unnecessary bureaucracy that makes firms less productive, less agile and less able to take new business opportunities must be curtailed.

The BREXIT vote has changed the environment in which our directors conduct business, but the cohort we recognise tonight have proved they are worthy of their honours and have the capability to cope – we would be lucky if they were Treasury Ministers. So let’s look forward to the future knowing that despite the turmoil of politics and the hysteria of the media, the UK’s businesses will always do their utmost to succeed and will help the country to achieve the results we expect and deserve.

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