A night at the Spectator's parliamentarian of the year awards

Osborne and Alexander could become Britain's most promising comedy double act.

To the Royal Hospital Gardens in Chelsea last night for the dinner to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Spectator's parliamentarian of the year awards (though there was some dispute over whether it was in fact the 25th anniversary; former Spectator editor Charles Moore claimed it was not). The venue was a cavernous, dimly-lit marquee, with the obligatory soft rock music accompanying the announcement of each winner and illuminated stars affixed to the ceiling - it had the feel less of a grand country house party than the wedding of a self-made Essex car dealer's favourite daughter but with the furniture hired from Ikea. "This tent is so lavish," said Nick Clegg, winner of politician of the year, "that it deserves Vince Cable's mansion tax." Meanwhile, the rain beat down on the canvas roof.

My favourite line of what was a splendid evening was from Danny Alexander. He and George Osborne received the award for "odd couple"; Alexander was wearing his Highland tartan, with a tastefully cut kilt. With Osborne at his side, he began thus: "It's obvious who's wearing the trousers in this relationship." An old joke, but nicely appropriate on this occasion. To which Osborne quipped, in reference to the topsy-turvy world of coalition politics, that "he's rolling back the state and I'm defending the Euro!" These two have the potential to become Britain's most promising comedy double act.

David Cameron, cautiously wearing a lounge suit rather than the requested black tie, was guest of honour and gave out the awards. He spoke with his usual fluency, teasing his new-found love Nick Clegg over his considerable personal wealth - and the many mansions in the family. Cameron referred to himself as a "middle-class boy from Berkshire".

Although he was suffering from flu, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson was on hand to introduce each of the award-winners - as Andrew Neil reminded us in his opening address "these are parliamentary not political awards" -- and the list of winners was spread across the parties, with even a gong for Caroline Lucas.

Peter Hoskin has all the details over at the Coffee House.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.