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Ibrahim Dogus: We no longer see Conservatives as the party for SMEs

Author: Hannah Prevett

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Towards the end of February 1,500 people including celebrities, politicians, restaurant owners and journalists will rock up at the British Kebab Awards held at the Park Plaza hotel in London, a stone’s throw from parliament.

Now in its tenth year, it has become an unlikely must-attend event in the Westminster calendar, according to its founder Ibrahim Dogus. It once trended on Twitter in the UK above the Oscars when the two events clashed on the same night.

Enjoying the cuisine last year were Sir Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Karan Bilimoria, president of business lobby group the CBI at the time, and David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary. This year Dogus expects Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, and Nadhim Zahawi, the Cabinet Office minister, to attend.

Dogus, 42, who owns three restaurants, said he started the awards to recognise an industry which contributes £2.2 billion to the economy. “The local authorities, government, media, nobody was giving credit or appreciation… this industry deserves,” he said.

A year after moving to the UK at the age of 13 as a Kurdish refugee, Dogus started working in a Mayfair restaurant. He continued working in hospitality while at university. He picked up his first restaurant in Westminster, Troia Southbank, at 23 after a conversation with the previous owner who was looking to jettison the loss-making business. He had been a regular customer for some years and the owner “convinced me to take over from him with a very good deal”.

Dogus said he had £15,000 in savings from a decade of working in hospitality and he secured a bank loan for a further £10,000. “I took over the keys but he remained as the formal official owner until I paid him off,” he said. Two years later, he’d managed to turn the business around. “I’d worked in restaurants so I knew how to look after customers, how to look after the kitchen and make sure we had better dishes and good service. I put 14 to 16 hours a day into the business.”

It’s his own experiences as a restaurant owner and entrepreneur that spurred him to create SME4Labour last year. He says the party understands the needs of the small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and is a more reliable ally than the Conservatives. “There are 5.8 million SMEs across the country… and they want to be able to thrive,” said Dogus. “They need a government that understands their needs.”

The top priority is business rates, said Dogus. “A government that doesn’t understand why business rates are a bad idea is not a government that can help SMEs. It’s a fixed cost for our businesses, whether we do well or not.” He said that he pays £60,000 in rates per month for his three prime London sites. “Whether we have 1,000 customers a day or we get nobody walking in, we have to find that at the end of every month.”

He said the plan put forward by Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, to scrap business rates was an indication of Labour’s pro-business agenda. Dogus said the alternative, where businesses pay an additional tax on top of corporation tax based on their turnover, was a more “progressive” approach.

This policy in particular appears to be attracting business owners. Roger Wade, the founder of Boxpark, and Paul Lindley, the founder of Ella’s Kitchen, are two high-profile entrepreneurs who both threw their weight behind the party last year. “The government is in a big mess,” said Dogus. “[Business owners] no longer see the current government as a government that will provide the conditions for their businesses to thrive.”

Dogus also thinks the Conservative Party is vulnerable in its handling of spiralling energy costs. He said more support should be given, suggesting energy bills reach an agreement with SMEs whereby they continue to pay their bills at an affordable rate with the additional fees payable in instalments later, as an interest free loan.

“This should be possible. But if they insist on companies like us paying our energy bills right now, at this moment, then some business will say I can’t pay this. And if they go into liquidation, everybody will lose. Landlords will lose, local authorities will lose because business rates won’t be paid. The Treasury will lose,” said Dogus. “Government needs to tell those energy companies, ‘Behave. Don’t push those companies out of business.’”

The restaurateur found himself in hot water in 2019 during his unsuccessful attempt to become MP for West Bromwich East when it emerged that Dogus had been investigated for tax evasion by the UK Border Agency in 2011. The UK Border Agency concluded he was trying to smuggle £11,500 out of the country for the purpose of “unlawful conduct”, including tax evasion. Dogus maintains his innocence, blaming poor legal advice at the time.