As if, after the phone hacking scandal, Number 10 hadn’t already had enough accusations thrown at it about cronyism with corporations, the Government has announced plans to forge closer ties with some of the UK’s largest businesses. The plan’s mastermind, trade and investment minister Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint, said the CEOs of Britain’s top 50 companies will be given Whitehall ‘buddies’, who will act as points of contact for the CEOs. It’s a nice idea – particularly during troubled economic times. But Whitehall insiders are apparently worried that the Government could subject itself to accusations of favouritism.
According to Lord Green, six ministers have been appointed as points of contact for CEOs. So while business secretary Vince Cable will be handed the CEOs of oil and gas giants Shell (his former employer), BP and BG to deal with; universities and science minister David Willetts will field calls from the likes of GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca, and business and enterprise minister Mark Prisk will take on Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota, Nissan and BMW. Apparently, the idea is that the scheme will ‘complement existing relationships between ministers and business’.
Naturally, there have already been concerns raised that the Government is blurring the lines between the private and public sectors. But a spokesman was keen to impress that the idea of the scheme is to allow businesses to approach Government with their problems directly, rather than for everyone to become BFFs. ‘It does not necessarily follow that the best minister to lead on a company would be the one who was most vulnerable to lobbying from that company,’ he pointed out. Although stronger criticism came from shadow business secretary John Denham, who said it’s an ‘admission that big corporates have completely lost confidence in the ability of government to understand their concerns’.
While it all seems like a reasonable idea in principle, the real question is whether this idea will have much of an effect on the Government’s day-to-day activities. After all, while the two sides don’t always see eye to eye, if the heads of FTSE100 companies have a concern strong enough to raise with a Government minister, getting hold of them is easier than it would be for the rest of us. So we’ll have to wait and see whether buddying up like this will have any tangible effect on Government-business relations.
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