The MT Diary: Howard Davies

Marshall, a class act to follow; tough job for IoD successor; Butler bikes back to Oxford.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

'Doors to the manual and cross-check' was the instruction to security staff on the doors of the Banqueting House in Whitehall for Colin Marshall's farewell to British Airways. There were liveried cabin crew checking boarding passes and serving drinks, with an endless loop of the Flower Duet by Delibes on the sound system (Daaaa da da da, daaaa da da da - you know the one). It seemed that, at any moment, the whole building might shudder and take off.

I've always wondered about the wisdom of holding farewell parties in the Banqueting House. Charles I's slow walk across the Hall on his way to the scaffold is an awkward precedent. But with some modest recovery in the airline market, the tumbrils were not waiting outside for Colin.

He has come in for his fair share of abuse over the years from Europhobic commentators in the business pages, largely because of his chairmanship of the Britain in Europe campaign. But he has kept BA airborne at a time when many other airlines have folded (in the US) or been bailed out by government grants (in Europe). Martin Broughton, who has dropped a T from his former billet at BAT, has a class act to follow.

The transition at BA has been smoother than at the Institute of Directors, where the knives were out for George Cox, its retiring director general. Lord Young of Graffham, who clung on to the presidency of the institute long after he had become an embarrassment, was notably disobliging, accusing Cox of being too close to the Government - than which no greater insult can be imagined. And Tim Melville-Ross who, as Cox's predecessor, had taken the IoD to the farthest shores of the Tory right and left it without a paddle, chose to attack him, too.

My own observation is that, quite apart from growing the membership considerably, Cox has brought the IoD back to a position from which it can exercise influence - if the members know what they want, that is. But his successor Miles Templeman will face an uphill struggle if his predecessors keep up a running commentary on his performance.

At the CBI, Adair Turner and Digby Jones may have views on my stewardship of the organisation before them; I don't know. If they do, they have been polite enough to keep them to their nearest and dearest. Melville-Ross would do well to follow their example. We can be sure that George Cox, a charming and quietly effective man, will do so.

Life at the IOD is, however, sweetness and light by comparison with the FA. The boys and girls at HQ may do little for the cause of English football, but they have added to the gaiety of life in the slow news days of summer. And you have to credit them with a certain finesse in employing a secretary with the same initials, providing some in-house R&R for busy executives. It takes corporate branding to a new level. If there's an obliging girl out there with the initials TCCB, the boys at Lord's could have an opportunity for you.

One wonders whether Michael Howard positively wanted Peter Mandelson to be sent to Brussels as the British Commissioner. Certainly his performance before the recess in the Commons debate on the Butler report helped to open the way.

It was striking that the Conservative leadership was so firmly opposed to the idea that Chris Patten might appear as a compromise candidate for the Presidency. One can see why - his appointment would have complicated the campaign against the Constitution - but it is odd that a party ostensibly committed to continuing British membership of the Union should not want the job for one of its own.

With Mandelson in Brussels, it all becomes simple. Europe, Blair, New Labour, spin - all come together as a pantheon of horrors that can be attacked without compunction or nuance. As a strategy, it might just work. Certainly, it won't be much fun to be a British Commissioner if we alone have voted 'no'. In those circumstances, Mandelson will earn his not especially lavish but lightly taxed package.

Having finalised his report, Robin Butler took his bicycle back to Oxford. His college - University - needs his care and attention. Univ was 26th in the Norrington league table of Oxford undergraduate performance this year.

Butler is the most recent in what is now a long line of people who have written reports for this Government over the past seven years. Butler had a small team of co-conspirators: usually reviewers whitewash - sorry, review - alone. With no appetite for royal commissions or public enquiries, the Government has commissioned many more one-person reviews than ever before. The Treasury is especially fecund: I've even done one for them myself.

Does this practice make sense? Has it produced results superior to the old way of doing things? Will the supply of reviewers continue? (Some, like Paul Myners, are on their second go-round for the Treasury.) Maybe a Review of Reviews and Reviewers is needed? Back on your bike, Lord Butler.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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