THE BLOG
08/09/2015 07:45 BST | Updated 07/09/2016 06:12 BST

David Cameron Is Wrong: Businesses Should Speak Out About the EU

The FT yesterday reported a warning apparently given by the Prime Minister and a coterie of advisers that business leaders should "remain silent" during the Government's negotiations with other EU leaders about the terms of Britain's membership of the Union. The fear, apparently, is that the PM's hand will be undermined - and also that in speaking out business could provoke a backlash that will help the Eurosceptics.

This is bonkers. There is no serious risk that business enthusiasm for continued membership of the EU will hurt Cameron in his discussions with Merkel, Hollande and the rest. Even if business leaders were arguing for staying in at any price, and not many are, none of our European allies could possibly assume that suddenly the British populace had suddenly become Euro-fans as they perused the many anti-European British newspapers, or the frothy opposition to all things EU so prevalent amongst many Conservative backbenchers. Nobody would doubt that the PM still would need a reform he could 'sell' to make the result of the referendum secure.

The fear of a backlash echoes points made in an earlier FT article back in July, which focused on self-censorship by UK companies about Brexit. And the response is the same, too: the idea that the public does not want companies to speak out on major issues is just wrong. Our Effective Communications polling this year found that 55% of the public believe that companies should comment on political decisions, and only 15% said they should not. On the other hand it is widely accepted that the failure of business to talk about, for example, the impact of Scottish independence until very late in the day was a mistake which almost cost the 'no' side the referendum.

On the contrary, the failure to comment on issues which could potentially impact significantly on investment and employment leaves the way clear to opponents - and ill-informed commentators - to make their arguments. And coming late to the party means that companies have not established a locus standi for having an opinion when they finally do speak up, and so they are all too often seen to lack 'legitimacy'. That view, and the criticism that follows, just feeds businesses' timidity, and it becomes a vicious spiral, in which silence is seen as the easiest option to take.

Businesses have a legitimate right to be heard, and for them to express a view would add practical experience and good sense to the debate. And so shutting up the business lobby is probably impossible, and would be stupidly counterproductive. The Prime Minister's advisers, not for the first time, are wrong.