Cameron getting his Zzzzzs. Montage: Dan Murrell/NS
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Commons Confidential: Tories got no soles

Plus: the PM’s early bedtime.

Jeremy Paxman, the retired rottie, has time on his hands after bidding goodnight to Newsnight, yet it was still a surprise to bump into him at the Durham Miners’ Gala. Paxo’s the type of chap who’d be more at home at a Countryside Alliance fete and his expression was bemused as the procession of brass bands and pit banners went past his hotel. At the city’s old racecourse, fiery speeches from union leaders and Dennis Skinner left the masses wanting to march on London to overthrow the political establishment. Intriguingly, I’d earwigged a discussion between Conservative MPs a few days earlier about whom they want to succeed Boris Johnson as Mayor of London in 2016. Top of the list is a broadcaster who describes himself as a “One Nation” Tory. Paxo laughed when I informed him, a response that a veteran interrogator for a certain late-evening BBC2 current affairs programme would recognise wasn’t a complete denial. I can see the Newsnight report now: Paxo at the front of a tandem, cycling to City Hall as Johnson sits behind.

We knew the chillaxing Cameron’s no Stakhanovite, but I hear from a very reliable Downing Street snout that in the summer the Prime Minister goes to bed when it’s still light. He likes to be tucked up by 9pm on Tuesdays before Prime Minister’s Questions. One unkind Tory wondered aloud why Cameron felt the need to turn in so early. “After all,” he mused, “he’s only facing Ed Miliband.”

There’s no love lost between the two wings of the ConDem coalition. Cons eagerly anticipate the demise of Lib Dems. Holier-than-thou Simon Hughes’s difficulties in Bermondsey, where Labour is putting up its stiffest challenge since he won the seat 31 years ago, are bolstering Tory spirits. Hearing the justice minister could be ousted, Alec Shelbrooke, a blunt Yorkshire Tory, was overheard offering to make a donation to the anti-Hughes cause.

Ahead of the reshuffle, a southern Tory muttered that I should watch clips of ambitious Esther “Posh Scouse” McVey when she was a humble reporter for GMTV. “She didn’t have a bloody accent then,” grumbled her resentful male colleague. Buller Boy Cameron may believe most people oop north keep coal in the bath but I suspect the Old Etonian is aware that Posh Scouse was privately educated at a minor public school. These things matter more inside a snooty Tory hierarchy than out.

Nadine Dorries boasts she didn’t always wear red-soled Louboutins. The celebrity MP told the Ampthill Literary Festival in Bedfordshire that when she was a child, her family was so poor, she often couldn’t go to school because she’d no shoes. I always knew the Tory party had no sole.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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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.