Liz Truss has been named as the new leader of the Conservative party – and will be the UK’s 56th prime minister – following a fractious two-month contest.
Truss scored a victory over rival Rishi Sunak to win the keys to Number 10, but she now faces arguably the most daunting to-do list of any incoming premier in living memory.
Top of her agenda will be finalising details of a support package to help households across the country deal with rocketing energy bills, which are set to rise again in October.
But after months of being ruled by a “zombie government”, following Boris Johnson’s resignation – and years of inaction on policies such as business rates and the apprenticeship levy, despite repeated calls for reform – retailers will also hope that Truss’ appointment can finally be a catalyst for policy change.
From business rates and energy bills to climate change and the digital skills gap, retail leaders compile their to-do lists for the new prime minister.
Alex Baldock, chief executive, Currys
“The cost-of-living crisis is hurting millions of people and is set to hurt them more. It will also hurt retail demand and threaten the millions of jobs and billions of pounds in tax that retail accounts for.
“Tax relief can soften the blow, supporting personal finances and retail demand. VAT is an obvious option. But, whatever it is, it should be meaningful and done now.”
Nick Beighton, chief executive, Matchesfashion
“I would like the new PM to appoint a minister for retail. For the last four years, it’s been an add-on to someone else’s job and no one does more than one job well. Retail should have its own minister driving its own strategy that includes out-of-town, digital and high street – it shouldn’t be channel-specific.
“The strategy should focus on skills, training employment and sustainability. We need to build back retail in a better, more sustainable way. At the moment, you have a government department that does high streets, one that does something else and nobody focuses on retail parks or digital.
“There should be a real focus on skills and building them up – we don’t have enough digital skills within the UK to compete where we need to”
“There’s a divide so we need to bring together a connected multichannel retail strategy for the whole UK. There are gazillions of people employed in the retail industry and you don’t have anyone responsible for it.
“Within the strategy, I think there should be a real focus on skills and building them up – we don’t have enough digital skills within the UK to compete where we need to. I’d be looking at skills gaps in digital and investing in universities to attract young people, particularly women, into STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects.
“The new PM could consider reducing the fees for STEM subjects or offering sponsorships for students to study subjects such as computer science and join the retail workforce. We’ve got to encourage more people to have digital skills to create a vibrant retail proposition going forward.”
Shirine Khoury-Haq, chief executive, The Co-op
“It remains sadly true that where you are born in Britain and what community you come from can too often matter more than the talent you were born with. Decent jobs and rewarding lives should be within everyone’s grasp, wherever they live.
“The new PM should prioritise skills development and boost business growth to help people pay the bills. Improved skills and education among our workforce make economic sense and by supporting businesses to prosper we will see our communities and workers – and their families – prosper. This will help to level up communities so that getting on doesn’t mean getting out of where you grew up.”
Kevin O’Byrne, chief financial officer, Sainsbury’s
“We understand how hard it is for millions of households right now and that is why we are investing £500m by March 2023 to keep our prices low. We know the pressure on household budgets will only intensify over the coming months and supporting customers, colleagues and our communities remain at the top of our agenda.
“We would ask the new prime minister to do all they can to help us with this, starting with an urgent and fundamental reform of business rates – taxation that is completely out of step with the way customers shop and a huge burden on so many retailers.
“We call for an immediate and permanent freeze to the multipliers followed by a headline cut to the rates shops pay. All retailers, both big and small, are facing soaring costs and supply chain pressures. A business rates reform would not only prevent store closures and protect much-needed jobs but for Sainsbury’s and many other food retailers, a reduction in rates would also enable greater investment into keeping food prices low for customers at this really critical time.”
Chelsey Oliver, creative director, Seraphine
“As a mum and creative director of Seraphine, parental leave is an important issue for me. I’d like the new prime minister to address what is quite an inflexible maternity policy in the UK, particularly when it comes to supporting mums in returning to work.
“Every woman’s maternity experience is different – their health, their baby, their circumstances and their jobs are all unique – and, instead of mandating a one-size-fits-all policy, I think we should give women more power in deciding how and when they come back to their roles and do so by providing more comprehensive statutory maternity pay (SMP).
“I hope the government supports all employers by offering better statutory maternity pay for a longer period of time. Women nurturing the next generation must be properly cared for”
“I wanted to return to work in a limited capacity after a few months and I was grateful to be a part of a caring, female-focused business that gave me that flexibility. But that’s not always the same for other new mums and it’s concerning that employers are not supported by the SMP structure and might struggle to offer reasonable maternity packages, especially from six weeks. This adds a great deal of financial pressure to return to work at that time.
“At Seraphine, we have recently reviewed our own maternity policy and I hope the UK government supports all employers to do so by offering better SMP for a longer period of time. Women who are nurturing the next generation must be properly cared for in a way that suits them and their baby.”
Isabella West, chief executive, Hirestreet
“The biggest challenge facing the country right now is rising inflation. Consumers are feeling the pinch already and they are feeling panicked about what is around the corner this winter. I would like to see the PM being bold in their approach to tackling rising prices; encouraging investment into innovative, sustainable businesses that overcome supply chain issues.
“The circular economy presents a huge opportunity in retail right now. With the right support, we could move towards a world where consumers access goods at lower prices because they are only paying for them when they need them, reducing overconsumption and waste at the same time.
“Despite this, current government policy makes it actively difficult for new circular businesses to raise the funds they need for growth because they don’t qualify for Enterprise Investment Scheme benefits. The new PM needs to look at this urgently, among other initiatives, to drive investment in this space.”
Barry Williams, managing director, Poundland
“I don’t envy the prime minister’s job – these are tough times and making difficult calls will be hard. We’re simple retailers but because we’re close to customers, we can see how urgently the next PM needs to act to ease the shock of eye-popping energy bills.
“Our customers see the cost-of-living crisis as an enormous challenge on the scale of the pandemic. Urgent, visible, effective action on inflation will be top of the new PM’s to-do list. Let’s use this moment, as we did through Covid-19, to drive long-term fixes to help businesses counter inflationary pressures on customers.
“We know the need for fundamental business rates reform has been widely recognised by politicians on all sides but the delivery of that reform has been in the ‘very difficult’ box for too long.
“The current system is a patchwork of complexity and short-term fixes. The dramatic pressures facing customers and retailers alike should now encourage us to get the job of reform done.
“Taking long-term action will mean we can invest more in our high streets and make a big difference in offsetting some of the inflationary pressures our customers face.”
Peter Wood, chief executive, Allsaints
“Taxes on retail businesses are disproportionately high, so I’d like to see a much cleaner and simpler business tax regime in which the focus is on profits rather than assets. At the moment, retailers pay more tax than businesses with the same bottom line in other sectors: having physical stores means paying business rates and having a large employee base means making significant national insurance contributions.
“Given the social and economic benefits that we bring to communities around the country, I would argue that our kind of businesses should be rewarded rather than penalised.
“But, more immediately, while we will all, of course, be negatively impacted to varying degrees by the cost-of-living crisis, the real business concern has to be for the smaller operators that are exposed to a particularly toxic mix of these inflationary headwinds. Without a targeted and effective plan to tackle these headwinds and address their root causes, many such businesses are going to really struggle to survive.
“I am hoping that our new prime minister will create an environment that encourages, rather than discourages, responsible business, innovation and entrepreneurialism. We face some significant challenges as a country but, by fostering a culture that celebrates and rewards success, we can collectively overcome them.
“As ever, the business world has a major role to play and the government needs to work collaboratively and openly with us in order to maximise the vast potential of the UK economy.”