There are echoes of 2008 in the arguments about the reputation of business
In the Cameron years, the Conservatives were mocked for putting the Chumocracy into government: the Bullingdon set pals, the Notting Hill set that worked together by day, drank together on the weekends. Those similar types – Dave, George, Kate, Ed – that came into Downing Street together and clung loyally together through it all. Boris Johnson’s first year in office has, if anything, shown that he doesn’t have friends as Cameron did. But the steady stream of stories since March suggest a pattern of Johnson’s Conservatives setting up his Chumocracy in business: Chumocracy Inc.
The comms firm set up by Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, who previously worked for Boris Johnson’s campaign consultant Sir Lynton Crosby, were reported to have picked up a £3m contract from the Government for coronavirus messaging without needing to compete for it. A run of PPE and NHS contracts, ordered understandably in a hurry but also without any competitive tendering, have gone to companies either owned or tied to Conservative donors and Brexit backers – Randox Laboratories, Meller Designs, Faculty AI, Clipper Logistics. And at the same time, the Government has become the biggest advertiser in the newspapers, just as so many other advertisers have disappeared.
People working inside Downing Street and the Department of Health will tell you you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t – damned if you abide by the punctilious civil service’s requirements for competitive tendering taking weeks or months to issue a contract when a pandemic is ripping through the population in days; damned if you don’t insist on competitive tendering, as, inevitably there are Tory donors in the business community, and it looks like you’re doling out goodies to chums.
All the while, the Johnson government has been airlifting business people into government. Most conspicuously, Dido Harding, the former retail executive who was sacked from TalkTalk and is married to a Conservative MP, was brought in to run the government’s test and trace programme; in turn, she’s called on her old colleague Mike Coupe, the former chief executive of Sainsbury’s, and as I’ve mentioned before, Gerry Grimstone – Lord Grimstone – is Minister for Investment straddling the business department, international trade and plugged into No. 10. And, of course, the arrival of the execs has coincided with the cleaning out of the leaders of the civil service: the message inside Whitehall is that the private sector people know better.
The government, meanwhile, has launched a rescue scheme for start-ups that can see it – the government – take equity stakes in new tech businesses. It’s also set conditions for its loans to businesses and support for banks that require the suspension of dividends. This is not going to hold. If investors get dividend payments from some companies, but not others, notably banks, they’ll put their money elsewhere. The government, sooner or later, is going to have to roll back on that.
Taken together – cosy deals to former colleagues on the campaign trail and friends of the Party; the plucking of people they know at the top of the private sector to shake up the public sector; and the relaxation of conditions on businesses and banks, well taken together, they all signal a renewed argument over the relationship between business and politics, money and power. We had it after the financial crisis, a blame game that pointed back to Labour’s light touch regulation and the City, the proximity of politicians and the press. The Right is setting up a rematch.
Perhaps this is on my mind because next week we are hosting the Tortoise Responsible Business Summit. It’s an attempt to look more closely at the idea of “purpose” – i.e. what businesses do for society beyond their own bottom line. At Tortoise, we like to say we are pro-business; after all, we are one. And we have an exceptional group of people joining us next week: Alan Jope, the chief executive of Unilever, the company that makes Dove soap, Lipton teas, half the things in your bathroom and kitchen, not to mention my personal favourite Magnum ice creams; Dave Lewis, who for the last seven years been running Tesco; Amanda McKenzie, who runs Business in the Community; Claire Perry who has just left Government to become managing director of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
The Responsible Business summit – and the driving force behind our interest in covering business – is a simple idea: it’s “everyone’s business”. Too often, business journalism is a club – reporting about people in business written in such a way that only people in business can understand it, and by people who rather think they themselves shouldn’t be journalists, but, in fact, be in business. But the decisions of these companies and executives are everyone’s business.
Again and again in this pandemic year, our judgment has been wrong-footed by time. We can’t see that where we are is not where we’re going to be in a matter of weeks. Even now, the focus on the infections and hospitalisations is making it hard, it seems, for people to digest the defaults, bankruptcies and unemployment that is going to pile up in the first few months of 2021. And with it there’s going to be an assault on trust and public confidence in business. The reputation of business is going to be back in play.