At the beginning of the debate, which was jointly presented by Enterprise Nation and ICAEW, a poll on voting intentions put the Conservatives well in the lead at 35%, Labour and the Lib Dems on 16%, the Green Party on 8% and UKIP at 1%. The rest (24%) were undecided.
However, by the time the panel - Matt Hancock, former digital and culture minister and Tory candidate for West Suffolk, Ibrahim Dogus, chairman of SME4Labour and Labour candidate for cities of London and Westminster, Lord Monroe Palmer, Lib Dem spokesperson for SMEs, Rachel Collinson, Green Party spokesperson for business, and Ernie Warrender, UKIP spokesperson for small business – had finished, the audience’s voting intentions had changed dramatically.
The Lib Dems were out in front with 38% while support for the Conservatives had shrunk to 25%. Labour and UKIP had increased their support (to 19% and 2% respectively) and backing for the Greens was down to 6%.
So what was it that turned the tide? Lord Palmer seems to have swung the debate with his unfailing good humour and straight-talking.
The audience liked his approach to SME challenges – calling for certainty for small businesses over Brexit, backing the need to sort out business rates as a matter of urgency and pointing out that Labour’s pledge to set up a national investment bank and a series of regional investment banks plus borrowing £500bn to help business was unnecessary.
“We already have a state-owned British Business Bank,” he countered. “We already have it because the secretary of state for business at the time during the coalition government, Vince Cable, set it up.”
He was also upfront about people from other countries who have made a home in the UK having the right to stay. People’s livelihoods should not be used as a bargaining tool. “It is not a moral thing to do,” he said.
The question over their future should be settled before Brexit negotiations begin. “What to do after Brexit is a matter for discussion,” he added.
And he probably swung a few more votes with his attack on Making Tax Digital and the requirement for small business to make five returns to HMRC a year.
Dogus started off well. “Labour for some may not be the party of small and medium enterprises but for people like me Labour is the party of small and medium enterprise,” he said.
“We will create economic conditions to share prosperity through every part of the community, to ensure fair taxation and strong public services, to reign in the big corporations which don’t pay their fair share and squeeze our income tax, and allow Britain’s businesses to thrive post Brexit.
“We believe in a fair tax system for business of all sizes. That’s why companies earning less than £300,000 a year will have a smaller companies’ rate of corporation tax. This will stay at 19% for at least two years. The higher rate will increase to 26% to pay for the investment businesses need in skills, infrastructure and public services like our NHS.”
But he set the audience muttering when he said that a Labour government would borrow £500bn to invest in businesses and infrastructure. This, he said, could come from the private sector, Europe, international funds. Cue: jokes about Diane Abbott’s abacus.
He also failed to explain Labour’s manifesto pledges to set up a ministry of labour and treat people as employees until their status is proved otherwise.
Hancock was always going to find himself on the back foot having to defend the Conservative government’s record to date as well as the new manifesto.
“It’s about having a government that supports business, supports enterprise and delivers for them and that’s exactly what we intend to do,” he said.
“We’ve got a credible story to tell because of what we’ve managed to achieve over the past seven years in terms of the record number of small businesses or jobs number – yesterday’s record low numbers of unemployed – and this incredible and exciting resurgence of enterprise in the UK.
“So the voice of small business is strong with the Conservatives. They have an incredibly strong voice at the table and so they should. I think we have demonstrated that we have delivered on that and we will continue to deliver on that in the future.”
Why then, he was asked, has Theresa May said in the manifesto that small businesses are going to have to give a year’s paid leave to people who want to go off and have caring responsibilities?
“Statutory workers’ rights are important,” he said, “and we always honour them.
“Ultimately, employees who are satisfied in the workforce and more secure in work have higher productivity.”
His small business audience was clearly not convinced.