The Iceland boss’ damning indictment of the Conservatives and endorsement of Labour may be polarising in and of themselves, but it highlights the depth of the government’s business troubles as it limps into an election year
This might not come as news to readers even vaguely acquainted with the last five years of parliamentary goings on in the UK, but the Conservative Party once again finds itself in deep trouble.
But it’s not down to an imminent leadership challenge on Rishi Sunak’s premiership, an unforeseen “fiscal event” crashing the economy, the party’s consistently low popularity ratings in opinion polls, or some new, sordid scandal on the benches front or back – although one could argue it’s a symptom of all those and more.
No, for today at least, it’s thanks to one-time Conservative Party donor and prospective parliamentary candidate Richard Walker.
“Walker effectively anointed Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour as the new ‘Party of Business’ – once the Tories’ proud badge of honour”
Walker is best known – when he’s not on Question Time – for being the executive director of frozen food specialist Iceland.
Writing in the pages of The Guardian, Walker excoriated the current state of the Conservative Party and effectively anointed Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour as the new ‘Party of Business’ – a title the Tories once proudly wore.
The Conservatives have “failed the nation” Walker thundered, effectively accusing the government of being the architect of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis that has placed “unbearable strain” on Iceland’s customers.
Now, as at least one reader has already made plain, one man’s journey of political discovery isn’t necessarily front-page news. But Walker’s close connection to the Tories, and now very public defection to Labour, lays starkly bare the government’s problem: the complete collapse in support from a sector it once enjoyed almost as a birthright.
“UK retailers and industry leaders – much like the consumers these businesses rely on to survive – are crying out for real leadership on economic issues”
Business leaders may well argue this unconditional support hasn’t existed since Boris Johnson’s infamous “f— business” comments back in 2018. Yet there can be no doubt that under Starmer, Labour has been making increasingly warm overtures to win over the Tories’ long-held mantle.
The growing chasm in perception has been further cemented by the news that Labour will be holding a sold-out business conference in the City next week with 500-plus bosses from the world of British finance.
While Walker has never been one to shy away from the limelight and is far more forthright in public with his opinions than just about any other retail leader, this doesn’t invalidate his criticisms.
While the Tories may try and spin Walker’s article as the poison pen rantings of an indignant malcontent who tried, and failed, to make the grade as a Conservative politician, it will undoubtedly still send shockwaves through Whitehall.
If Walker is saying these things in public, how many more business and retail leaders are thinking the same in private?
Let us also not forget that this is almost certainly going to be an election year. With both Sunak and the Conservatives’ opinion polls consistently languishing in double-digit deficits to Starmer and Labour, this latest round of unflattering headlines will hurt.
It may also be an unwelcome harbinger of things to come. While Sunak and his party feel on firmer electoral footing fighting amid the sound and fury of the Rwanda scheme, UK retailers and industry leaders – much like the consumers these businesses rely on to survive – are crying out for real leadership on economic issues.
“2024 might just be the year that the retail industry gets its chance to say: “f— you” right back to the Conservatives”
Despite Sunak’s pledge to get inflation down to 2%, the latest Kantar grocery market share data shows that in January, food inflation remained stubbornly high at 6.8%. While politicians and business leaders alike may still be enjoying restaurant-quality lunches, millions more consumers have been forced to turn to packed sandwiches to help make ends meet.
The longer this goes on, the longer the Tories’ opinion polls will languish, and the time to turn it around is fast running out.
The zombie issue of Brexit is also beginning to rear its ugly head again. After years of delays, the first phase of border checks for imports into the UK are due to begin tomorrow.
While the first phase of checks only deals with added paperwork, they foreshadow the implementation of physical consignment checks in April. Many industry experts have long predicted that this will lead to a surge in costs and potential shortages of fruit and vegetables on UK supermarket shelves.
While the Brexit deal was made two prime ministers ago, and was walked through parliament almost unopposed, any adverse effects it has on inflation and consumer choice at the checkout will be left squarely at Sunak and the Conservatives’ door.
So yes, Richard Walker is only one man and his criticisms are just one more issue of many. But, if his sentiments are anything to go by, 2024 might just be the year that the retail industry gets its chance to say: “f— you” right back to the Conservatives.