Starmer and Reeves fill a vacuum in Davos charm offensive | Davos 2023

It was blue versus red in Davos. Within minutes of the business secretary, Grant Shapps, regaling a CBI lunch at the swanky Belvedere hotel about his plans to “scale up Britain” on Thursday, Keir Starmer took his seat in the main hall in the conference centre a couple of hundred of yards down the road.

The Labour leader proved less of a draw than Volodymyr Zelenskiy the day before, but that wasn’t the point. The man who aims to be the UK’s next prime minister had the stage he needed to make his case.

Flanked by the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, the aim of the visit to the World Economic Forum was clear: to take advantage of the absence of Rishi Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, to show that Labour had moved back to the political middle ground and was a pro-business party.

The charm offensive seems to have paid off. One senior business figure said that while Sunak and Hunt were well liked in Britain’s boardrooms, Labour had the industrial strategy and a plan for growth the current government lacked.

The difference between the parties was evident from the Shapps and Sunak speeches. One of the big talking points at this year’s Davos has been Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, which provides extensive state aid for companies investing in green technologies. Starmer embraced the idea of a more activist state; Shapps was distinctly cooler on the idea, describing it as “dangerous”.

One business figure said: “Rishi was straitjacketed and took the decision not to come last year in a moment when it felt unviable. Things have moved on. Rishi would have stolen the whole show.

“Starmer and Reeves have set the tone really well. They are here to promote themselves but they have done it on the pretext of promoting the UK, which is filling a vacuum left by Rishi.”

Over a lunch of grilled vegetables, roasted chicken breast and petits fours in the Hotel Belvedere Grindelwald, Shapps insisted that the UK government has a growth strategy and stressed it must “think bigger, take strategic risks”.

The former transport secretary used the speech to launch a plan called Scale-up Britain, aimed at growing promising companies into global challengers. “What I want to create is a Silicon Valley with a British edge,” he said.

Despite what he called the “prevailing economic news”, Shapps said it was not the time to “sit back and escape the problems of the outside world”.

Reeves was keen to point out that many of these problems had been self-inflicted, relishing the chance to run through in detail the chaos caused by former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget last September. “Any economic policy has to be built on a rock of economic and fiscal responsibility but the UK needs a serious plan for growth which it has been missing for a decade or more.”

Sir Martin Sorrell, the media owner and a Davos veteran who was at the British business lunch, said: “He [Shapps] laid out a vision but did not lay out a clear plan.”

Sorrell said Labour’s rise “feels a bit of a repeat of [Tony] Blair and [Gordon] Brown” and their business charm offensive before their landslide election victory in 1997. Asked if Labour can truly claim to be the party of business, he said: “The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.”

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