Sunak woos business elite with royal welcome – but they seek certainty

sunak woos business elite with royal welcome – but they seek certainty

Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/EPA

Hampton Court is an enduring monument to the power of Henry VIII, a pleasure palace down the Thames from Westminster and the City of London. On Monday it was the scene of power projection of a different kind, as Rishi Sunak pitched for investment from some of the world’s business elite.

Bosses ranging from the US bankers Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan and David Solomon of Goldman Sachs mixed with the leaders of massive investment funds from Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. British bosses also braved the chilly halls – heating was not a strong point of Tudor architecture – ranging from the insurer Aviva’s chief executive Amanda Blanc and the Octopus Energy boss Greg Jackson to Lawrence Stroll, the executive chair of Aston Martin.

The VIPs were given an overload of royal treatment – perhaps to try to beat France’s own annual attempt to woo investors at the even grander Palace of Versailles. Buglers welcomed the most important bosses, while choristers from the Hampton Court choir serenaded them with Christmas carols in the November drizzle. France cannot rival the UK on one aspect of the charm offensive: living royalty in the form of King Charles at an evening reception at Buckingham Palace.

Yet business leaders present were less interested in the trappings of the UK’s past glories, and more in hearing about a stable investment environment after years of turmoil in the British government.

Tony Lombardo, the chief executive of the Australian investor Lendlease, has been on the receiving end of government flip-flopping. It is investing heavily in the redevelopment of London’s Euston station, which will welcome fewer passengers after Sunak decided to cut short the High Speed 2 rail line to save money. Lombardo said he was hoping to talk to ministers about ways to cut costs at the site.

“There’s a lot of appetite to continue to invest,” he said, praising the UK’s life sciences sector in particular. “For investors like ourselves we’re just looking for certainty.”

Getting private investment moving has been a growing concern for the government since the financial crisis of 2008, amid meagre productivity growth. It was a key theme of chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement last week, with business tax cuts that make investment in machines and other physical assets more attractive.

However, Ian Stuart, the chief executive of the UK arm of HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank, said he still thought British businesses were “preserving cash” rather than investing because of worries about what way the economy could turn. He did not expect things to pick up until the second half of 2024.

“I think we’re coming back from an uncomfortable period – and I think I’m being quite generous there,” he said. “There’s still the overhang of an election next year, probably. People don’t like that uncertainty.”

Keith Anderson, chief executive of Spanish-owned energy company Scottish Power, said he thought the UK was seen as a good place to invest, even if the next auction of wind power development rights needs technical tweaks after the last failed to attract bidders. But Anderson said he was pushing for government to improve the rate at which big projects can receive planning and regulatory consent.

“We need to go faster,” said Anderson. “Speed can be as valuable as a tax break.”

It is questionable how much business is done directly at the summit, and whether the investments announced really move the needle. Some projects announced at the first version of the summit, held in 2021 at the Science Museum, are still yet to be completed.

Yet one government official involved in drumming up investment said the glitz – the palace, the union jack projected on the centuries-old buildings, pike-wielding beefeaters on loan from the Tower of London for the day – did have a role in attracting business. “It’s to show we care,” the official said.

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