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30 July 2016

The news this week: BHS, MI5 and BMWs

A Brexit boon for accountants, knights and peers in disgrace,  and more woe at the Guardian.

By Peter Wilby

Brexit was supposed to be a triumph for the common people, fed up with a metropolitan-based elite getting all the gravy. Yet it is already evident that the first beneficiaries will be the usual suspects. Renegotiating trade agreements with not only the EU but also numerous other countries with which we previously traded under the EU’s umbrella requires “experts” of the sort that Michael Gove declared we’d all had enough of. So does freeing ourselves from EU regulations and replacing them with laws more to the British taste.

The government hasn’t enough such ­experts. So it is hiring help, at anything from £1,000 to £5,000 a day, from elite law firms, management consultants and accountants including Linklaters, McKinsey, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG and Ernst & Young, all of them frequent beneficiaries of government contracts. The total cost could reach £5bn over a decade, taking quite a chunk out of the savings on EU contributions that were supposed to go to the NHS.


Slaying knights

I have always opposed the honours system with its hierarchical and archaic structure of British empire medals, Knights Grand Cross of the Order or the Bath and so on. The top awards usually go to people who have already done well out of life. But if honours become conditional on good behaviour, I may change my opinion. Sir Philip Green, who extracted dividends from BHS while the retailer ran to ruin and its pension fund to a deficit, should lose his knighthood, it is suggested – as the RBS bank boss Fred Goodwin did after the financial crash.

Honours may seem meaningless baubles to you and me but they are valuable commodities used to wangle positions on company boards, promote money-making ventures and impress foreigners. Perhaps there should be some equivalent of the General Medical Council or the Bar Standards Board with power to discipline knights, dames and peers and find them guilty of bringing disgrace on Queen and country.

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Neither great nor good

One peer such a body could investigate is Lord (Anthony) Grabiner, a commercial barrister elevated to the peerage by Tony Blair in 1999 and now Master of Clare College, Cambridge. According to an MPs’ report on Green’s sale of BHS to the thrice-bankrupt Dominic Chapman, Grabiner, as the chair of Green’s parent company, took a “remarkably docile attitude”. His performance, according to the MPs, represented “the apogee of weak corporate governance”. For a “considerable salary”, he was “content to provide a veneer of establishment credibility . . . while happily disengaging from the key decisions.” Grabiner was recently engaged by the Bank of England to advise on ethical wrongdoing. People who did jobs like that used to be known as “the great and the good”. Now, they are neither.


Spook stories

Len McCluskey, the Unite union general secretary, believes the online abuse of Jeremy Corbyn’s critics is posted by members of the security services trying to discredit Corbyn and his supporters. I am not sure this allegation deserves the scorn that it has attracted. Thanks to investigations by Seumas Milne, the Guardian journalist who now acts as Corbyn’s spin doctor, we know that the security services concocted false newspaper stories in 1990 that the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill received money from the Gaddafi regime in Libya. We also know that an undercover police officer called Mark Kennedy infiltrated a group of environmental activists and helped organise a protest against a coal-fired power station in 2009 which led to criminal charges.

The full story of the security services’ infiltration of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland still hasn’t been told. Compared to these elaborate operations, posting a few unpleasant comments wouldn’t take much planning or organisation.

I have just one problem with McCluskey’s allegations. Don’t the security services understand that Corbyn is such an ineffective leader that he is capable of discrediting both himself and the Labour left without any help from them?


Guardian gloom

Last year, George Osborne, then the chancellor, found a useful £23bn in the back of the sofa as he struggled to balance the nation’s books. At the Guardian, however, looking down the back of the sofa exposes a dirty great hole where yet more money has leaked away. Earlier this year, it estimated a £58.6m operating loss for the 2015-16 financial year, requiring 20 per cent spending cuts. The ensuing row over who was to blame led to Alan Rusbridger, the recently retired editor, losing the chairmanship of the Scott Trust, the paper’s owner.

Now the Guardian announces that losses were 17 per cent higher than expected, at £68.7m. One is bound to conclude that it has (or, one hopes, had) hopelessly inadequate financial controls. That is nothing new for newspapers. “There will be draconian financial controls,” Andreas Whittam Smith told us hacks when he launched the Independent in 1986. Then most senior executives got BMWs as company cars. Even I, a non-driver, had one within a few years.


Slow bowlers

During this summer’s Test matches against Pakistan, Sky TV’s commentators highlighted the constantly declining rate at which overs are bowled. In the 1920s the over rate was 21.66 an hour. Now it’s barely 13 an hour and still falling. Has any other industry recorded a near-40 per cent decline in productivity over that period? And does any other industry spend so much time scratching its head over why it is losing customers? The answers are simple. Abolish drinks breaks, stop assistants dashing on to the field with new batting gloves and ointments, get rid of TV reviews of umpires’ decisions and, above all, penalise teams that drop below 21 overs an hour by awarding their opponents 10 runs for each unbowled over. 

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue