Are the Tories tipping into anti-business rhetoric?

The government announces more regulation business won't like.

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.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder