Jacob Rees-Mogg, newly installed as Business Secretary, came to a full ConHome marquee to answer questions about how he intends to proceed.
He was introduced by Mark Wallace, Chief Executive of ConservativeHome, as “the star of the Moggcast”, the long-running ConHome show which has given Rees-Mogg invaluable practice at not quite breaking the bounds of collective responsibility while showing his heart is in the right place.
Tina McKenzie, from the Federation of Small Businesses, was on the platform to help put him through his paces. She described herself as “a West Belfast girl” who had “only just met Jacob”.
Distant sounds of revelry from more frivolous events sometimes penetrated the ConHome tent, but the audience was watching with rapt attention to see what kind of relationship the West Belfast girl and the West Harptree man would strike up.
West Harptree is Rees-Mogg’s home village in Somerset. He remarked that during the pandemic “the pub in West Harptree” took lunch each day to an old lady, even though this was probably against the planning rules, as pubs are not allowed to sell take-away food.
In West Harptree and all over the country, business people, he pointed out, “don’t mind looking after other people – they’re members of the community just like everybody else.” Most of them are not rich, and they are held back by absurd regulations.
Again and again he sought to show McKenzie, herself a spokeswoman for the despised tribe of small business people, that in him she has found a true friend.
When it was put to Rees-Mogg by McKenzie and others that the £85,000 turnover limit at which businesses have to start paying VAT is a terrible disincentive to growth, he indicated that he well understood this, before adding: “I don’t think I’d better say anything else on that without being wildly indiscreet.”
Wallace: “Our house rules at ConHome do include encouraging wild indiscretions.”
But wild indiscretions can wreck a first date, and Rees-Mogg was not going to commit any.
He instead said he was “very excited” about ARIA – the Advanced Research and Invention Agency – and “if ARIA works we should put up a statue to Dominic Cummings”.
Did this, we wondered for a wild moment, count as a wild indiscretion? Rees-Mogg quashed the idea by adding that this was “the only reason” a statue should be erected to Cummings.
Spontaneous applause broke out when Rees-Mogg said, with reference to the Northern Ireland Protocol: “We need to be able to trade as a single United Kingdom.”
He added that “the EU is not tremendously keen on the United Kingdom”, but “we cannot allow the EU to stop us trading freely with the United Kingdom – it is monstrous”.
McKenzie said businesses found it “quite worrying” that the emergency energy price cap was only going to last for six months.
Rees-Mogg: “Businesses always ask for certainty, but certainty is not in the gift of mankind to provide.”
Wallace: “Has the Government made uncertainty worse in the last couple of weeks?”
Rees-Mogg: “I’m shocked that ConservativeHome should make such a charge!”
Rees-Mogg loves to defy conventional wisdom. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” he declared, if the cut in the top rate of income tax from 45 to 40 per cent “didn’t cost anything at all”.
Predictions that it would cost two billion pounds were not “holy writ”, he added, and pointed out that cutting the top rate from 50 to 45 per cent had not cost anything.
Cricket came in when he explained that in the energy crisis, the Government had to act as “the backstop, the fine leg if you haven’t got a very good wicket keeper”.
McKenzie raised the problem of late payment, which can drive small businesses to the wall. Rees-Mogg said “it is really difficult” when “you don’t want to sour your relationship with your biggest customer” by threatening them with legal action.
This meant that passing draconian laws against late payment would not work.
McKenzie: “You and I are going to work on this together.” She is going to mentor him!
Paul Bonstead, from Altrincham, thanked the Government for scrapping the IR35 reform, but pointed out that Making Tax Digital will impose new burdens on businesses which will find themselves obliged to submit five tax returns a year instead of the present one.
“Gloria in excelsis Deo,” Rees-Mogg declared, with reference to the scrapping of IR35, adding that HMRC tends to think, mistakenly, that “every entrepreneur is trying to fiddle the tax system”, when actually most aren’t.
He said he was not going to say anything about Making Tax Digital, “though you may read between the lines or you may not”.
One way or another, a lot of reading between the lines was taking place, and a relationship is evidently on the cards.