Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. My plan to save the NHS – in the nick of time (Guardian)

All is not lost, says David Owen. We can still shield our health service from the ravages of a full-blooded external market.

2. A big play from Osborne could stop Labour hijacking his legacy (Daily Telegraph)

There is just about time between the March Budget and election day to make a difference, says Benedict Brogan. 

3. Rising populism is worthy of Nixonland (Financial Times)

At a time when elites are popularly resented, a silent majority is there for the taking, writes Janan Ganesh.

4. Why the ‘ethnicity effect’ terrifies Tories (Times) (£)

The statistics are inescapable and the implications huge: black and Asian voters are wary of voting Conservative, writes Rachel Sylvester.

5. HS2 shows that investment is not such a dirty word after all (Independent)

When the coalition first came to power, nothing much happened on high-speed rail, writes Steve Richards. So this sudden burst of energy is welcome, even if the impact remains years away.

6. A conspiracy of reasonable people (Financial Times)

If China stops playing by Davos rules, the golden years of the WEF will be over, says Gideon Rachman

7. When the rich are born to rule, the results can be fatal (Guardian)

I was schooled in a system that separated me from ordinary people's lives, writes George Monbiot. The same fate has befallen the global elite.

8. This bold vision will keep Britain on track (Daily Telegraph)

High-Speed 2 is a long overdue declaration that Britain still has ambition, says a Daily Telegraph leader.

9. High-speed rail is not the best way to spend £32bn (Independent)

With so much uncertainty as to both the costs and the benefits, this is no time for vanity projects like HS2, argues an Independent leader.

10. A welcome U-turn over secret courts (Daily Mail)

Ken Clarke’s U-turn over some of the more sinister provisions of his plan for secret court hearings shows he has heeded crucial objections, says a Daily Mail editorial. 

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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.