Political Interview: Tory chairman Brandon Lewis on helping Yorkshire's small businesses, winning votes in our cities...and the Brownlee brothers
As the Tories aim to put a tumultuous summer behind them, chairman Brandon Lewis has visited Leeds to hear the views of a city business. Rob Parsons reports.
He may up from London as part of a tour of the provinces during the quiet summer weeks, but Brandon Lewis doesn’t need reminding about Leeds’ status as a sporting powerhouse during his visit to Yorkshire.
A former board member of the British Triathlon Foundation Trust, the chairman of the Conservative party is a keen participant in the multi-disciplinary sport made famous by the city’s Brownlee brothers.
Such is his enthusiasm that an enquiry about his training at the start of his visit to The Yorkshire Post’s office quickly turns into an anecdote about bumping into all-conquering Alistair and Jonny on a recent visit to Leeds city centre to watch the World Triathlon Series.
“I said to them ‘you are supposed to be racing in an hour’ but they said ‘Oh we’re just getting a feel for the atmosphere’, they are just wandering around, not being bothered by anyone,” he recollects. “This was the year that Alistair absolutely stormed it, it was surreal to see them around.”
His visit to Leeds this time round is less of a physical endeavour and more to do with Conservative efforts to take the temperature of the country’s small businesses, which he describes as the “heart-beat of the community”.
It could be seen as an attempt to return to focus to a domestic agenda after a tumultuous summer for the party. The Tory chairman himself was involved in two of the bigger rows, first when he said sorry for breaking the ‘pairing’ agreement not to take part in a key Commons Brexit vote, and later when he called for Boris Johnson to apologise for his comments about burkas.
During his morning in Yorkshire Mr Lewis has been talking to bosses at LBBC Technologies in Stanningley, who aim to “push the boundaries of pressure vessel and autoclave design”. Describing the meeting, he says: “It is just fascinating actually to see a business that has been around for over 100 years, fifth generation, three members of the family involved, preparing for the next generation coming through.
“It is a very interesting business, particularly because they also do a huge amount of exports, the majority of which is not to do with the European Union, so they are themselves seeing the opportunities that are there around the world, particularly in emerging markets.
“When I was there this morning I saw the good and products that are going out to the United States, India, Turkey, just fascinating.”
Only 15 per cent of LBBC Technology’s exports are to Europe, meaning a no-deal Brexit is less of an issue than for other Yorkshire firms, but Mr Lewis says his Government is preparing hard for what many people would consider an unwelcome outcome.
Speaking ahead of the release of the first tranche of technical papers setting out the implications of the UK leaving without a withdrawal agreement, he says: “Although we are confident, and I am optimistic that we will get a deal that is good for the United Kingdom and our partners in Europe to continue trading in the future, it is also good due diligence to be prepared for any eventuality.”
He adds: “What we will start publicising is those technical papers so that business can get a feel for what those implications and knows it can have confidence to continue in the future. But our key focus is on making sure we get a good deal.”
His fellow Conservative Kevin Hollinrake, who Mr Lewis says he tried to persuade to take part in a triathlon relay at Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, has been at the centre of a campaign to help the small businesses treated “appallingly” by banks.
The Thirsk and Malton MP, who says victims of misconduct are struggling to take on the big banks, is calling for the creation of an independent tribunal to oversee complaints from SMEs (small-and-medium-sized enterprises).
Asked about this idea, Mr Lewis is reluctant to commit his Treasury colleagues to backing it but says he is keen to talk to firms about how the Government can help them grow.
“There is a job to do in looking at how we can make sure that SMEs are more aware of where there are funding opportunities,” he says. “The banks are not the only option. In some cases there are better options, whether that is venture capital or other options, there is a whole range of things out there.
“I have run small businesses and you are focused on looking after your staff, looking for the clients of tomorrow and how you can grow that, keeping that business the best it can be. So anything new and different, you are not necessarily aware of what it out there.”
Earlier this month, The Yorkshire Post launched its A Tale of Two Yorkshires series looking at the demographic timebomb facing the region, as its towns and villages age at a much faster rate than its cities.
The Centre for Towns’ Will Jennings suggested this increasing polarisation has left voters in cities holding values and opinions increasingly at odds with those in cities. Mr Lewis says the issues raised make for a “a really interesting debate on a number of levels”, but says the ageing population in what might be considered Tory heartlands is “not something that fills me with any fear”.
“It is part of the challenge that is going on anyway, which is I want more younger people to vote Conservative,” he says.
“Actually we had a steady growth in membership this year and a very steady growth in youth membership, at our party conference we had more young members than we have had for many years.
Tied up with the change, he says, is a shift in the way people shop and carry out their social lives which market towns are still trying to adapt to for their survival. This means the traditional high street and the local pub are battling to compete with the growing power of online retailers and the trend for having friends round at home.
“From a political point of view, I want more people to vote Conservative in rural areas and in city areas.
“Part of my job as chairman of the Conservative party is looking at how we tell the story that is relevant to people in the cities, whether it is young people or older people, and why what we are doing is a positive thing for them, and for them to have a positive opportunity in life, and for their family to have a good outcome in life, they need to be voting Conservative.”