Open letter to the Conservative leadership candidates – Belfast News Letter

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Dear candidates
You have entered the leadership race, fought the first rounds, and now find yourselves in the final stage of a contest between just two people from which, in less than six weeks, one of you will emerge triumphant as Conservative leader and Prime Minister.
The candidate who prevails will seek to govern for the whole of the UK at one of the most challenging times in post-war history, so I am extending an invitation to you.
In the course of the next few weeks, you are scheduled to take part in a series of hustings across the country, including here in NI, where you will set out your stalls and make commitments that will bind you in office. In my engagements with businesses right across the UK the key issues that dominate are the levels of debt; worrying rises in interest rates; availability of labour; the heavy hand of business rates; and, locally, the lack of proper strategies for childcare and disability that could, if enacted, help address the massive overhang of economic inactivity.
Whilst these pressures are adding immense strain to the cost of living and the cost of doing business generally, it is likely that here in NI, unlike other hustings, you will be asked about the ‘conjoined twins’ that are the restoration of Stormont and the resolution of the challenges arising from the implementation of the Protocol. The positions you take on these two issues will affect us here in NI for months and years to come, but they will also have impacts that will ripple far beyond this place.
Business has an interest in understanding your views on these matters, which will come to the fore in the hustings, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that the realities of the context are shared with you in detail before you finalise your views and make your policy commitments public.
The successful resolution of the NI Protocol is central to the UK’s relationship with the EU and is closely linked to that with the US. Like a magnet, if it is successfully managed its force could attract and pull the parties closer together; but conversely, it could repel and push them further apart. Taking time to understand the implications of the details, from those who will be most affected by the moves to reach resolution, will be a most valuable investment that will stand the successful candidate in great stead.
The current UK government is progressing the NI Protocol Bill through Westminster, and officials are conducting intensive engagement on it over the summer; but will whichever one of you becomes the new Prime Minister be committed to this same path, or will you set it aside? Resolution of the Protocol issue is closely linked to resumption of stable government at Stormont; and business needs both, because the current impasses in each are intolerable.
To that end, this letter is an invitation to each of you to visit NI – before the hustings takes place – to meet with businesses so that you can hear from them directly and gain a first-hand understanding of the challenges they are facing, their concerns and also some of the solutions that they believe would work.
The hustings will be your showcase; the opportunity to set out policies and show mettle; the chance to appeal to the very particular electorate that is voting in this contest, but it is not a broad-based public engagement. The scale of the challenges facing NI’s businesses is so extensive that proper, quality engagement in advance of the hustings is essential. It will not only give the opportunity to get input on the unique issues of the Protocol and Stormont, but it will give confidence that you are listening to those who will be affected by your government and its actions, and that policy will be informed and responsive.
NI has been through many challenges in its history but, eventually, they have all been resolved through dialogue. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which marks its 25th anniversary next year, was reached through negotiation in which NI people themselves were key participants.
If you make the commitment to come here in the coming days to engage and listen, I will undertake to bring forward a range of excellent businesses to meet with you to help inform your policymaking and ensure that your premiership is given the best opportunity to succeed in its policies on both the Protocol and Stormont.
Your sincerely
Tina McKenzie
Chair of Policy and Advocacy Federation of Small Businesses


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