“The government needs to hear a single voice from this great industry, as loudly and clearly as possible,” said Darby.
“If the industry can focus on unity in bigger way than ever before, then my prognosis for the industry is better than ever before.” But to deliver that potential would depend on “everyone stepping up to the challenge – the whole industry”.
While acknowledging the problems besetting the sector, he urged industry leaders to put aside differences in a bid to persuade government to act in the best interests of Britain’s biggest manufacturing sector.
“Last week’s election did not do much more than reinforce the levels of uncertainty,” said the Premier Foods’s ceo.
“But business is used to uncertainty. Uncertainty is what we are used to managing. We are paid to manage uncertainty.”
‘Not an excuse for poor performance’
Uncertainty is not an excuse for poor performance, Darby told the FDF dinner. Industry leaders should focus not on complaining but managing things that were within their control.
It was essential the government saw the food and drink sector as being “solutions driven, not problem obsessed”.
Darby underlined the urgency needed to plan for the future post-Brexit. “By April 2019, we will have left the EU. While that timetable may change, we have to assume that it won’t,” he said.
FDF director general Ian Wright warned the government not to overlook the strategic importance of the food industy. “We continue to remind the government that feeding the nation is its first duty and that food is a matter of national security.”
Wright looked forward to a building a new constructive trading relationship with the EU after Brexit. “It means a zero-tariff trading relationship and, more importantly, one were non-tariff barriers are kept to an absolute minimum.” It also meant “a seamless, frictionless border in Ireland,” he added.
The industry’s success also depended on continuing to recruit workers at all relevant skills levels in the run up to Brexit and beyond. “The food and drink industry faces a churn rate of 35,000 people leaving the industry each year,” Wright told the dinner.
‘The powerlessness of power’
Meanwhile, after dinner speaker, veteran political commentator Steve Richards noted Prime Minister Theresa May illustrated “the powerlessness of power”.
Richards told the dinner: “Six weeks ago, Theresa May was omnipotent figure in British politics. Now she struggles to retain power.” He added that May was “a leader in power rendered powerless”.
A key test of her authority would be the reaction to the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the new government’s plans. It is due on Monday June 19, but is likely to be delayed as Conservative Party talks with the Democratic Unionist Party continue.
“If she were to lose the Queen’s Speech, the game will be up for her and possibly her government,” said Richards.
The FDF’s Food and Drink Industry Dinner took place at the Hilton on Park Lane on Monday (June 12).