Boris Johnson has pulled out of an appearance at the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) after the organisation issued warnings about a second lockdown and Brexit.
CBI president Lord Bilimoria said it was only the second time a prime minister had not spoken at the event.
The group’s director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said the second national lockdown will be a “real body blow” for firms and that appearing at the conference was an opportunity for the prime minister “to make it absolutely clear that he backs business”.
But Lord Bilimoria revealed on Monday morning that the PM had pulled out and was being replaced by business secretary Alok Sharma.
Lord Bilimoria told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is absolutely normal, in the history of the CBI, for the Prime Minister of the day to address the annual conference.
“To my knowledge this has only not happened once in history.
“He is not going to be addressing us this morning.
“However, we are hopeful that at some stage he will engage with us.”
Dame Carolyn warned Johnson’s relationship with business “could be a lot better”.
Asked if he is a business-friendly prime minister, she told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “I think he is in his bones, but I think what we now need to see is that in action.”
She said the annual CBI conference is an opportunity for Johnson “to make it absolutely clear that he backs business”, before adding: “It has been a disappointment to me that there hasn’t been a closer relationship there … I think it could be a lot better, I really do.”
Dame Carolyn warned that economic support for business during the pandemic “has felt too often as though it’s tail-end Charlie”, adding that “if that isn’t there then jobs will be lost now”.
She added that mass rapid testing for business “could be a total game-changer” as England prepares to enter a four-week lockdown from Thursday.
“It’s an incredibly difficult time for business – this is a real body blow,” she said.
“So many firms have worked very hard to become Covid-safe, they have been resilient through the first phase, so this is undoubtedly very tough.”
On Brexit, she said: “Brexit has been done, we now need the deal, that is really important.
“It is over and actually all that business now wants to do is make a success of that, to move us forward and we have to do that partnership.”