Retailers’ relations with new business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng have got off to a rocky start after a bad-tempered call this week.
Kwarteng, who was promoted to become secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) in January, took part in a virtual meeting with about 70 retail chief executives organised by the BRC on Tuesday. However, his attitude angered participants, who described Kwarteng as “rude” and said the atmosphere became sour as the confidential call went on.
Retailers had been expecting an hour of Kwarteng’s time but in the event, the meeting lasted 30 minutes.
The conversation took in issues such as post-lockdown reopening and business rates but is said to have become confrontational when state-aid was brought up.
Some businesses are concerned that they may be ineligible for some grants to help them through Covid because of adherence to EU state-aid rules, even though the UK has now left the body.
In the case of some smaller and mid-sized retailers, the impact on financing arrangements is likely to be significant. A question on the issue, and follow-up, prompted an angry reaction from Kwarteng, Retail Week has been told.
Kwarteng also told the chief executives that he would be unimpressed if details of the discussion were leaked.
According to one person on the call: “He was abrupt throughout and became rude at the end.” Another observed that he seemed “to have forgotten who his customers are”.
BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said she was “deeply disappointed” that details of the confidential call with Kwarteng had been leaked.
She said: ”This undermines the trust that BRC has built up with government ministers and officials through many months of very productive engagement, and our ability to convene important discussion forums at such a challenging time for the industry.”
A BEIS spokesperson said: “Upon his appointment, the business secretary promised to be a champion for business at the Cabinet table. This is exactly what he has been doing, having spoken to over 400 firms since January.
“As the British Retail Consortium itself has said, it has had many months of very productive engagement with ministers and we are determined that this should continue.
“We understand these are extremely challenging circumstances for the retail industry, which is why we have put in place one of the most generous packages of business support in the world, worth £280bn. This includes the extended furlough scheme, business rates holidays, grants, various loan schemes and VAT deferral.”