This announcement was always going to be tricky for a Conservative prime minister to make. The relationship between the Conservatives and the business community is stronger and longer established and runs much deeper than the marriage of convenience between business (and the City especially) and New Labour, and stronger than that with the LibDems. While the Labour Party continues to try hard to re-engage and woo business leaders (its top team were out in force at a Labour Party business reception earlier this week, including the one-man charm machine that is shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna) it still has a long way to go.
The Conservatives on the other have been trying to juggle keeping business onside with not being seen to be too cosy with such natural allies as large corporate donors and wealthy business leaders. This balancing act partly explains both the prime minister and his chancellor making so much noise about anti-tax abuse regulations.
At an awards dinner recently one senior FTSE100 executive told me he was fearful that all the aggressive government rhetoric on tax was in danger of tipping into anti-business rhetoric. He was appalled by what he felt was precisely the opposite of the sort of language he expected from a Conservative prime minister, even one leading a coalition government.
The lobbying debate got even more heated when another announcement – that plans to force cigarette brands to adopt generic packaging were to be shelved – was linked to alleged lobbying activities of Conservative Party strategist Lynton Crosby (whose firm counts tobacco giant Philip Morris among its clients).
The rights and wrongs of who asked for what favours from which politicians (which is essentially what lobbying is) matters less than the message the whole affair sends out. While the boisterous, point-scoring politics of Prime Minister’s Questions is a bit of noise and we can enjoy the “banter” of David Cameron being called “the prime minister for Benson and hedge funds” Ed Miliband being accused (again) of sitting “in the pocket of the unions”, these stories continue to undermine public trust and confidence in both politicians and business.
Trust is already at a something of a premium, following the financial crisis. The recession may have been caused more by a reckless few financiers than the business community per se, but for much of the public there isn’t that much to distinguish bankers from big business. It’s a problem business secretary Vince Cable started the week trying to address. He launched a consultation paper at the London Stock Exchange called Trust and Transparency, which proposes a whole raft of measures on areas ranging from beneficial ownership (much of which was announced at the G8 Summit earlier in the summer) right through to a much-needed review of the system for pre-pack administrations.
Cable launched the paper in the City because many of the current problems with trust started in the Square Mile during the financial crisis. As Cable said, there has been “a seemingly endless succession of mis-selling and price-rigging scandals; and accusations of greed and unethical behaviour against leading figures in the industry.”
It’s no surprise that this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer found that UK banking scores some of the lowest trust scores for any sector in any country.
The problem with any trust is that it takes a long time to build, is shattered in an instant and takes even longer to rebuild. If the public mistrusted the relationship between business and politics in 2008 it is not surprising the only thing that has changed since then is that the sense of mistrust and the outrage have grown.
Politicians need to be seen to be tackling these problems and as much as businesses won’t like it, that always means more regulation. Cable is right to introduce measures to give investors more power to influence executive pay. While the details of plans to introduce a register of the beneficial owners and detailed issues such as bearer shares will not be raised by the public when politicians start pounding pavements at the next election, it is essential the public understands that politicians and the business community are taking steps to put their respective houses in order. Without that trust will never be restored.
This piece first appeared on economia.