The pro-Remain party, represented by deputy leader Sir Ed Davey, started the evening in the lead but only just – 3 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives, represented by business secretary Liz Truss (39% v 36%).
By the end, thanks to a strong commitment to stopping Brexit and keeping the UK firmly in the European system, the Lib Dems had shot up to 54%, leaving their former coalition colleagues floundering at 24%.
Labour also suffered, despite being represented by Bill Esterson, the shadow small business minister who used to run a small business before he became an MP. The party started out with the backing of 21% of the 150-strong audience but support shrank during the evening to just 11%.
Neither the Green Party nor the Brexit Party got much of a look in while the more established parties slugged it out over the question of who really was the party for business. Nevertheless, they both managed to increase their share of the vote (they started with 2% and moved up to 7% and 4% respectively).
They were represented by Amelia Womack, the Green Party’s deputy leader, and Hector Birchwood, who is standing against shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer in his constituency of Holborn and St Pancras.
Setting the scene for the hustings, Iain Wright, ICAEW’s director for business and industrial strategy, said that some General Elections were rather more important than others and that December’s had all the characteristics of one that could shape the UK for years to come.
Uncertainty about the future since the referendum in June 2016 had undermined confidence, particularly in the business community, and the ICAEW Business Confidence Monitor was at the lowest it had been since 2008 and the financial crisis.
Business creation rates had fallen at a time when competitors like the US, France and Germany had experienced stable start-up figures. “This matters,” Wright stressed, “because small businesses are a vital part of the UK economy.
“Political parties,” he added, “ignore the needs of small businesses at their peril.”
Truss said that Tories believe in business and that people starting up in business are “heroes” because they keep coming up with new ideas which end up contributing to the taxes that pay for our services.
If they win the election, the Conservatives would sort Brexit and move on. They would then ensure that taxes were kept low, especially for SMEs. They would also focus on a business rates review, rolling out fibre broadband and improving transport services. “Our manifesto is realistic, deliverable, specific,” she said.
The Lib Dems, meanwhile, believe in free markets, free trade and competition. “We want to stop Brexit. It’s a huge set-back for entrepreneurial businesses,” Davey said. The election though wasn’t all about Brexit. It was also about talent, innovation, infrastructure and access to finance.
Birchwood disagreed. He said the EU didn’t represent free trade since it was a customs union, “We have the right answer,” he asserted. “Global free trade.”
The Brexit Party would remove business rates and launch a debate about how taxes are levied across the whole country.
Womack said that she had met a number of Tories who had joined the Green Party because of its policies for small business. These included getting rid of business rates – a “broken system” – and replacing them with a landowner tax, encouraging small businesses in the leisure industry by reducing VAT, and supporting freelancers by introducing a universal basic income of £89 a week.
Esterson said that he was thrilled that the Labour manifesto had at its heart a Business Investment Agency and a National Investment Bank which would help restore certainty and confidence to business. A hard Brexit was not acceptable, he added, because it would damage business. “There has to be a choice between a credible leave option or remain.”
He flagged Labour’s plans to create 80,000 new apprenticeships, as well as investment in infrastructure that was vital to SMEs. “Yes, we’re ambitious… but when we have the scale of crisis we currently have, we have to act. We can’t say we can’t afford it. We can’t afford not to.”
Inevitably, issues such as business rates, late payments, IR35 and the loan charge came to the fore. Davey, who set up the Loan Charge All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), said the loan charge legislation was “scandalous” and a “disgrace”. If the Lib Dems won the election, they would abolish the retrospective legislation, go after the promoters and make HMRC behave better.
Truss said the Tories were committed to a “proper review” which would seek to remove red tape for the self-employed and give them control over their working life, as well as lots of opportunities.
The Brexit Party, Green Party and Lib Dems all agreed that a landowner tax was a far better idea than business rates and Truss received flak about yet another business rates review. If the business rates system wasn’t working, said Womack, why hadn’t the Tories done anything about it in 10 years of government?
Esterson said the debate was not just about rates. There were other serious challenges, including the fact that people don’t have money to go and spend in retail outlets. “We have got to turn the High Street back into the heart of the community,” he said, suggesting that there should be free travel for under 25s, an empty property register and better reliefs for plant and equipment.
The last five minutes of the hustings was given over to the question of immigration and the headache many small businesses are already suffering from when it comes to sourcing their workforce.
Truss explained that the Conservatives would end the freedom of movement with Brexit and introduce an Australian-style points system. This would include numbers of PhD students in maths and physics, doctors, nurse and farm workers. “We want a system that allows us to bring in people who will contribute to the economy,” she said.
Davey thought that any constraint on immigration would be a “retrograde step” since immigrants “do a huge amount for our economy”. But Birchwood said the Brexit Party had an easier system in mind that was fair to all, not just the EU, since it involved recruiting the best talent globally.
“You are all talking about people like a bargaining chip,” said Womack. Freedom of movement is an “incredible gift” which “supports our businesses, our communities”.
Esterson agreed. He deplored the idea of restrictions on numbers according to levels of pay, pointing out that small businesses depended on foreign workers. “There should be no arbitrary targets across the economy,” he said.
In the end though, the honours of being the party for business went to the Lib Dems and their “moderate” stance. “I am fed up with politics where people tell bare faced lies,” Davey said. He described the idea that the UK is going to make free trade deals on its own by the end of next year as “fantasy”, and warned the audience that under the Tories the country – and small businesses – would be going off a cliff.