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Politics is everyone's business: in defence of business leaders who reveal their party allegiance

Why it's wrong to admonish the potential future CBI chief for backing the Tories.

I own and run a business. I’m also a Lib Dem. And so, in two short sentences, I apparently have ruled myself out of ever being President of the CBI.

For if the reports are true, that’s what’s likely to happen to Paul Walsh. The former CEO of Diageo and non-exec Chairman of Compass Group had been heavily tipped to become the new President of the CBI and all appeared to be proceeding smoothly. Then news broke that Walsh was one of the signatories to the letter in The Daily Telegraph from one of the 100 business leaders suggesting an incoming Labour government would threaten the recovery. And now it seems the offer of the Presidency may be withdrawn.

It hardly comes as a huge revelation that numerous captains of industry are Conservative voters (even if Labour weighed in with an attack on Walsh for potentially impugning the neutrality of the CBI). And any decision to drop Walsh seems wrongheaded.

Just for starters, from now on, every incoming President of the CBI is going to be asked their political allegiance. Answer honestly and they immediately get ruled out of the running. Decline to answer and they look evasive – and start the hares running to find out if they happen to spend some of their downtime writing large cheques to their local Conservative Association.

Are we really saying that people running the CBI or the Institute of Directors or any one of the hundreds of trade associations in the UK can take no active interest in politics?  It’s been suggested that in Walsh’s case it was the high-profile nature of the declaration that was the issue. Really? So where is the line drawn? A letter to a newspaper? A poster in a window? Doing a round of leafleting?

Nor do I buy the argument that the issue is that he is using his business role to promote a political party. If those 100 business leaders had just signed their names without appending their company’s monikers, do folk honestly think we wouldn’t know who those FTSE 100 leaders work for?

Sticking your neck out and stating you political allegiance is a brave thing to do – trust me, you get a lot of flack for it. We should be admiring of people in every walk of life who are willing to publicly state that loyalty or belief – whether they’re the Chairman of a FTSE 100 company or a householder with a poster staked in the front garden.

Currently every party is stuffed full of folk who have never had a career outside politics. The cry to get more people with a wider experience of life into politics is one we hear over and over again. Yet when people do get involved – and let’s not forget both Labour and the Lib Dems have published their own letters from workers and business leaders backing each of them – they get attacked for putting their head above the parapet.

Criticise what people say by all means – that’s the essence of political debate. But punishing them for getting involved in the debate at all – that’s just plain illiberal. And making judgments like that is just what I thought the CBI was trying to avoid.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.