Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. While dubious mortality rates grab headlines, NHS privatisation gallops on (Guardian)

The ferocity of the battle over 'dangerous' hospitals was not synthetic, says Polly Toynbee. The future of the NHS itself is under attack.

2. German fear of past jeopardises Europe (Financial Times)

The onus is on Berlin is to show it is ready to lead, writes Mark Mazower.

3. The world must learn from India’s two nations (Times)

The fatal poisoning of 23 children shows that growth and democracy are not enough, writes Philip Collins. You need good government too.

4. We have to wean the country off the drug of immigration (Daily Telegraph)

Education and welfare reforms, not imported labour, are the way to solve our mounting debt, argues Fraser Nelson.

5. David Cameron has failed to resist the lunchtime lobbyists' lure (Guardian)

In opposition, he saw the scandal coming, writes Simon Jenkins. But in office the PM has cosied up to corporate figures like Lynton Crosby.

6. Italy must throw out its racist politics (Financial Times)

The nation is stranded in the past regarding gender and racial equality, writes Philip Stephens.

7. Bad news: house prices are bubbling up again (Times)

The latest forecast is a 13% rise, writes Ed Conway. But will voters thank Osborne for stoking up the market?

8. Better a turbocharged backbencher than a ministerial drudge (Daily Telegraph)

A rebellious MP can have more effect on the direction of the party than an obedient minister, says Isabel Hardman.

9. Red Ed's picked this union dinosaur to clean up Labour's vote rigging scandal (Daily Mail)

Ray Collins is indelibly associated with corrupt elections and smears, says Andrew Pierce.

10. There is no ‘golden age’ for Malala to return to in Pakistan (Independent)

The message is simple: everything Malala has learned is wrong, writes Peter Popham. 

Getty
Show Hide image

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.