Greg Clark – MP for Tunbridge Wells
Article by Ninder Johal – Photos by Jas Sansi
The abandonment of the Industrial Strategy in March of this year was roundly condemned by business leaders and the business press.
As a Board member of the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership (which is a body comprised of private and public sector leaders) we worked closely with Greg Clark MP who was then the architect of the Industrial Strategy as part of his role as the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy.
Albeit, Greg is no longer the Secretary of State, it seemed an opportune time to ask him his views on the removal of the Industrial Strategy (IS), the role of the UK post Brexit and all things energy.
During his many trips to the Black Country, Greg was a stickler for time and he did not disappoint for our pre-arranged interview via Zoom directly from the Houses of Parliament.
At 2 o’clock on the dot – he appeared – smartly dressed, armed with a smile, and looked suitably relaxed. During my time of working politicians from all parties, it was remarkable that when asked, politicians irrespective of which party, all spoke highly of Greg, and no one appeared to have a bad word about him.
So, why Politics I asked?
Having come from the Northeast, an industrial region that was heavily Labour, he found it lacking in aspiration and a place where there was high unemployment. He could not understand why after leaving school individuals preferred unemployment than further education.
He remembered knocking on doors collecting money for his father’s milk business during the evenings and weekends brought him into the everyday lives of people and the natural inclination to converse with people from all backgrounds.
This triggered an interest in politics but straight to SDP. A switch to the Tories seemed natural once the SDP had called it a day.
A portfolio of posts including as part of the Opposition in the Tories took him to Secretary of State of Business during the Premiership of Teresa May and the construction of the Industrial Strategy.
So, I asked him;
With the demise of the Industrial Strategy under the leadership of Kwasi Kwarteng MP, was the strategy flawed from the outset or was it a mistake to abandon it in March of this year?
The Industrial strategy, he reminded us of was similar to any adopted by any business. It is the matching of strengths to future demand and opportunities and to ensure that resources are available to secure those opportunities. Those resources might be skills, research and development and facilities. This he argued had to be extended to national government.
‘It had simply evolved’ he replied diplomatically. ‘The main elements are still there’.
I remarked that during his tenure and ownership of the strategy, he was very visible and led from the front and it was clear who owned the strategy;
So who was leading it now – even in its changed format?
Covid had complicated things he argued, ministers were not as visible as normal and the ‘levelling up’ strategy was a clear indication of the existence of an industrial strategy because of its emphasis on the importance of place. He took pride in the fact that he was responsible for the Towns Fund (which was part of the IS) deal. The preoccupation hitherto, was with regions and not towns per say. He was proud that he had managed to get it through legislation despite the reticence of the Treasury.
‘Place matters, prosperity does not happen in the abstract’. He argues.
He has long called for devolving powers locally because ‘only local leaders can know what’s best for their area not officials from Whitehall who had never been there’.
He believes in competition but reminds that the role of government is inextricably linked to place. ‘They provide the funding for universities to undertake research, they provide the funds for transport and therefore Government needs to be ‘visible and prominent.
‘We are still investing in R and D; the Science Budget has doubled and the focus on place will continue so little has changed’ he argues.
He would like to see the pressure on further decentralisation increased because ‘local leadership is so important’.
‘We have a centralised country with all the importance attached to the Southeast but most of the universities are not in the Southeast and Universities play a big role in the leadership of the economy regionally and nationally.’
When pressed on the unrealistic timescales attached to ‘getting rid of the Internal Combustion Engine by 2030, he conceded it was tight and the government needed to accelerate the adoption of charging points across the country and reminded me that in the IS – ‘we looked at the Faraday challenge and our intention was to make the UK centre of battery technology’.
It was possible for us to be ready, he argued, the cost of cars would come down because of scale and the running costs would be much cheaper than they are currently. When asked about the demise of manufacturing, and how as a result we had suffered when it came to souring PPE and vaccines and the amplification of the Suez Canal;
Should we not be encouraging more manufacturing and investing?
‘Whilst being self-reliant is important – we cannot cut ourselves from the world – if everybody did that – there would be nothing to export and there would be no export markets – business is all about trade and not putting up shutters. If you look at the components in vaccines – they came from different parts of the world – we should be open to the world’.
We were interrupted by the chimes of the bells from within the chamber but by now, the ex-Minister was in full flow and did not seem to notice the sound.
He spoke passionately about education and before answering the question around competitive disadvantage for UK manufacturers when it came to energy, he confessed to introducing the legislation for net zero target for the UK.
But I challenge him – UK lies 17th in the polluters table with USA and China in chart topping positions.
So why are we paying top ‘whack’ when it comes to imposition of taxes?
‘it’s the right thing today, even China wants to be leaders in Green tech and is now a competitive threat when it comes to electric cars’. Of course he reminds us ‘Biden has taken the USA back into the Paris agreement.
We are world leaders in Offshore winds which will create thousands of jobs – just look at Siemens employing a thousand people’.
So, post Brexit and post COVID – where does this leave the UK as a global brand?
‘We cannot work in the same way now that we have left the EU – we have to be nimble and invest in the right areas.
We will look to maximise the number of trade agreements, our standards have always been high, we need to look for opportunities, be confident and agile.
And the USA – will we get a trade deal?
‘Deals with big countries will always be challenging, which may include agriculture and manufactured goods but there is good will from the USA to the UK – just look at the Scotch whisky – the tariffs have been lifted – we now have the opportunity to deal directly.
And finally I ask what is the future for the UK?
‘We will recover quickly because of the vaccine; it will be difficult for the global economy whilst we try to assist others in the area for vaccines. We need to become a key leader now that we are not constrained by the EU and if anything, this pandemic has shown that globalisation is here to stay and will not be diminished.
We have a reputation for innovation and high-quality products and there is no reason that we cannot be on the front foot and confident.’ The bells ring again and with that we terminate our conversation.
He was charming, articulate and a person not driven by ideological dogma.
But I’m still not sure whether we do have an Industrial strategy to boast of.