Tag Archives: David Cameron

This week’s media picks: infrastructure, Bangladesh safety, fracking, climate change, bioscience

FT (23/4/14): Leading article: Time to invest in Britain’s future

As the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Chancellor, George Osborne, welcomed £36 billion investment in infrastructure projects, the Financial Times, remained to be impressed. In a leader, it said that one of the biggest and most persistent questions facing the UK economy is the worryingly low level of investment in infrastructure. Despite fine words, the government’s record is decidedly mixed, and the new set of initiatives may not match the scale needed to raise infrastructure spending to the level required. The FT outlines three areas of weakness in policy: 1) Spending is not high enough, and is persistently less than many of our competitors; 2) Given low interest rates, the government should borrow more to finance big projects; and 3) the government needs to establish a more stable and clearer framework for private sector investment.

Fibre2Fashion (24/4/14) Bangladesh Safety Accord on course, says UNI official

A year after the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, a demonstration of corporate social responsibility in action, rather than just words, is making progress towards improving the safety, prospects and lives of the country’s garment workers. Despite the many barriers to progress imposed by the political, social and commercial cultures of Bangladesh, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh can be proud of its progress when it marks its own one year anniversary next month.

An official from, UNI Global, one of the two global union bodies that negotiated the Bangladesh Accord, Alke Boessiger, said: “The inspection program is in full operation. There is a strong team of more than more than 100 technical experts and engineers in Bangladesh who are conducting 45 inspections per week, with the aim to inspect 1500 factories by October.  More than 280 factories have been inspected for fire and electrical issues and 240 for structural safety.  Every inspection has revealed critical issues which must be repaired as a condition of doing business with signatory brands in the future. These issues include, for example, the absence of fire doors to separate the work area from the fire exit.  Brands are responsible to ensure that sufficient financial resources are available for the renovations and improvements.”

FT (24/4/14): Shale gas a multi-billion-pound opportunity for UK business

A report by EY, commissioned by the UKOOG, the shale-gas trade body, said that fracking shale gas could potentially generate 64,000 jobs in the oil and gas supply chain. It said that over the next 15 years, the UK would need to invest £17 billion on specialised fracking equipment and skills. This won’t mollify fracking’s opponents, but does at least show that the industry is seeking to make a positive, factually-based case for its development.

The Guardian (25/4/14): Kingfisher CEO warns on underestimating impact of climate change on business

In an opinion piece, Kingfisher plc CEO, Ian Cheshire urged business to sign a communiqué aimed at policymakers gathering in Paris next year for the UN Climate Change Conference. He warned that resource scarcity, energy price increases and extreme weather are real and growing threats to the long-term viability of business. That’s why hesigned the Trillion Tonne Communique, drawn up by the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group, and is encouraging other business leaders to do so too. Adverse climate events are increasing costs for business, Kingfisher’s alone, were tens of millions of pounds, and as business doesn’t have a seat at the table, it needs more of them to sign the Trillion Tonne Communique to ensure that its voice is heard. 103 businesses world wide have signed so far, but it will require quite a few more to overcome the political resistance that clearly exists in some quarters.

FT (25/4/14): UK medical science drive shaken by US takeover fears

News that AstraZeneca was approached by Pfizer about a £60 billion takeover, has called into question the UK’s ambition to remain a leading global player in life sciences. AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are the only large companies with research and development operations in the UK. Oxford University’s Professor John Bell said: “If we were to lose one of them it would be a real blow to our capabilities. It’s a sector that is crucial to our future economic success. The news prompted Andrew Miller MP, Chairman of the House of Commons science committee to call for tougher standards to protect strategic UK assets, such as considering the national interest when looking at takeovers. Steve Bates, chief executive of the UK Bioindustry Association, pointed to successful smaller biotech companies, but said: “It is important to have whales in the ecosystems around which minnows can flourish.”

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A house divided can stand

Abraham Lincoln quoted scripture when he said of the young United States, as it faced threats of seccession by southern slave-owning states, that a divided house cannot stand. He went on to defeat these threats in the bloodiest war the United States has ever endured.

The British government doesn’t face quite the same existential threat, thankfully. But the steady occurrence of divisive political issues keeps raising the spectre of the Coalition’s collapse.

Yesterday in Parliament we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, statement opposing much of the Leveson report on the press, being starkly contradicted by his Deputy, Nick Clegg, who supports it. Also in Parliament yesterday, we saw the Lib Dem energy secretary, Ed Davey, present his battle-scarred Energy Bill, with his wind-sceptic Tory junior, John Hayes, sitting behind him, glowering supportively.

We’ve also had, recently, the unceremonious ditching by the Conservatives of Lords reform advocated by the Lib Dems. As an eye for an eye, the Lib Dems have said that they will oppose the re-drawing of Parliamentary boundary changes that would have benefited their coalition partners.

Opposition MPs’ criticism that Lib Dem ministers who can’t abide by collective responsibility should resign is an obvious debating point. This ignores the fact that it is in the nature of governments to set precedents. And with the first peacetime coalition formed purely as a result of Parliament being hung, the nature of the government itself is unprecedented.

The rules of collective responsibility have been re-written. There will no doubt be more intra-Coalition spats in the months to come, but none of them will bring down the Coalition until one, or both, parties decides that it’s time to pull down the temple.

The Coalition may eventually reach the point where it falls apart, but my hunch is that this won’t happen until well into 2014 at the earliest. The reason is that both parties are wedded to austerity and need to be able to demonstrate that it has worked. The economy will need to have returned clearly to growth, or be showing credible signs that it will do so. Only then can they face the electorate and be able to tell them that the pain has been worth it.

We will then face the delicious irony that as soon as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can demonstrate that the Coalition has been successful, they might then decide to terminate it. Quite what the electorate will make of that, we will have to wait and see.

Boris throws a FIT

David Cameron must getting used to being sniped at by erstwhile allies. His Liberal Democrat coalition partners have made regular show of objecting to their own government’s plans on the NHS, tuition fees, repatriation of powers from the EU.

I suppose that comes with being in coalition. The junior partner will genuinely take a different view in some policy areas. It will also be looking to the next election and will feel the need to do something to preserve its vote. What better way than to set position yourself against particular policies, particularly if they are controversial.

This has also been Boris Johnson’s approach, almost since the moment he was first chosen as the Conservative Party candidate for London Mayor in September 2007. David Cameron, his nominal leader, acknowledged this when he launched his first mayoral election campaign, saying: “I don’t always agree with him, but I respect the fact that he’s absolutely his own man.”

Whether it was suggesting a one-off amnesty for illegal immigrants or proposing a new airport in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow, Johnson has frequently pursued his own unique policy lines. Some issues, like the future of Heathrow are a legitimate concern of the Mayor. Others, like the UK’s approach to the EU are, to say the least, stretching it a bit.

This week, he has been at it again. In a letter to the Chancellor that somehow found its way into the press, he threw a hissy fit (or is that a hissy FIT?) and attacked the Government’s decision to halve the feed-in tariff (FIT) for solar photovoltaic electricity. He argued that this will “slowly suffocate the growth that this policy has so far encouraged.” In his letter, he writes that “While the government will argue that the costs of solar panels have reduced, the costs of inverters, stands and labour have not.”

Boris Johnson’s intervention comes on the eve of a Labour Party opposition day debate on support for the solar industry in the Commons on Wednesday and a mass rally in Parliament today. Ministers will come under pressure to justify the cuts to FITs. The solar power sector will find some relief that such a senior figure in the Conservative Party is taking its side and not just the Labour opposition.

Of course, Johnson is facing London’s voters in just over five months, and is looking for ways to portray himself as not the Government’s candidate. It will be tempting to take a cynical view Johnson’s support for solar power subsidy, but right now the industry needs all the support it can find.

Johnson may also be looking to elections much further in the future that would give him power over more than just bendy buses and pay-as-you-go bicycles. The trick for the industry is to keep his support over the long-term, that is, if it survives that long.

In praise of special advisers

Special advisers have never exactly been viewed with affection. In the first episode of Yes Minister, Jim Hacker arrives in the Department for Administrative Affairs for the first time accompanied by his special adviser, but before they even reach his office, the adviser is bundled off unceremoniously into a cupboard. Oh, how we laughed.

We also laughed long and hard at the absurdities of Malcolm Tucker et al in The Thick of It. As a former special adviser myself across six different Whitehall departments I thought it was hilarious. On occasions, some of the scenarios were eerily familiar in spirit, if not in fact.

Of course, the truth is much more mundane. Real special advisers are not out of central casting, nor are they all in the mould of Alistair Campbell, Charlie Whelan or Andy Coulson. Clare Short, who had two special advisers of her own, famously described them as the “people who live in the dark”. I took that as a compliment, as special advisers should usually be invisible to the public.

But they also are serious and conscientious providers of political, policy and communications support to ministers. And with the exception of the occasional Sir Humphrey, they are welcomed by civil servants. They are a valuable means for handling the more overtly political aspects of modern government and can help guide, though not instruct, civil servants on a minister’s thinking. As Sir John Elvidge former permanent secretary of the Scottish Executive, quoted in Civil Service Live Network, put it: “special advisers who genuinely know the minds of their ministers – rather than those who ascribe their own thoughts to a minister – are invaluable, because ministerial time is one of the scarcest commodities.”

The origins of the special adviser role are opaque but arguably started to take form during Harold Wilson’s first premiership in the 1960s. He appointed Marcia Williams as his political secretary and complained later how the civil servants tried to marginalise her and keep her in an office far from his. No wonder she was rumoured to have been a source for some of the scenes from Yes Minister. He also sought independent advice on the economy from two Hungarian émigrés, Nicholas Kaldor and Tommy Balogh – referred to unaffectionately by civil servants at the time as Buda and Pest.

Gradually the use of special advisers became more established with codes of conduct and formal appointment as temporary civil servants. Their numbers grew steadily under the Major, Blair and Brown premierships. Although there was some carping at this, they are now a fact of political life.

David Cameron pledged opportunistically to reduce the number of special advisers but now that he is in government he may appreciate that they have their uses after all. He has now had to face this reality and sanction the appointment of an additional seven to serve junior Liberal Democrat ministers. This is another evolution, as previously they only served Cabinet ministers.

Perhaps now we can have a more mature discussion on the role and number of special advisers. If No 10 had had a stronger team of political and policy advisers, it might have avoided some of the damaging retreats and uncertainties on issues like NHS reform, sentencing policy and the stewardship of public forests. We may be a long way from the US where an incoming President brings in a top echelon of 2,000 appointees to run the government, but our system of government and policy making might just benefit from a little more light being shed on its inner workings.

X Factor politics, Hammer Horror policies

I attended a Conservative Party business event this morning, addressed by David Cameron. It was billed as Supporting Small Business and Building the Big Society. Unfortunately, the clamour from the media throng for his answer to the X Factor-like surge from the Liberal Democrats, meant that there was precious little space for him to say much about business.

But beyond the brouhaha surrounding National Insurance Contributions, you will learn little from the media on what each of the parties are offering business. The curse of reality TV politics, is that there is now even less space for policy debate in any area, let alone on business issues.

True, David Cameron did mention cutting Corporation Tax and exempting new businesses from paying National Insurance on the first 10 new jobs. But it was hard to get away from hung parliaments and attitudes to Nick Clegg.

Each of the parties has dedicated sections in their manifestos and websites on policies for business. The Conservatives will reduce red tape and form filling, simplify business taxes and make rates relief automatic for small business. Labour’s proposals include cutting regulatory costs, doubling the capital gains allowable under Entrepreneur’s Relief and temporarily increasing small business rate relief. Like the two main parties, the Liberal Democrats say that they will remove unnecessary regulations. They will also establish local enterprise funds, stimulate bank lending to business and part-privatise the Royal Mail.

As with manifestos as a whole, the wording can often be couched in such general terms that the promises can, sometimes, mean anything to anyone. People running businesses will make their own judgements on which party they would prefer in power. But regardless of which party wins, scrutinising manifestos will not be enough for business to ensure that the new Government implements policies that enable them to flourish. Businesses, whether individually or through trade associations, will need to engage with policy makers as soon as possible after the election. The purpose is not just to anticipate policy but to try and shape it before it is finalised.

Forecasting the election result has now got a lot more complicated. We may even be facing the prospect of a hung Parliament, with either a minority Government or a coalition. In these circumstances, and especially in the latter, manifestos go out the window to be replaced by policy programmes based on political horse-trading.

Businesses, as well as the financial markets, don’t like uncertainty. But post-election uncertainty is also an opportunity for business to exert its influence on future policy. But they must engage proactively with policy makers, be they ministers, advisers or officials if they want to see a policy mix that enables British business to thrive and expand. Failure to do so could result in the X Factor politics being generated by the leaders’ television debates, producing a Hammer Horror for business.

The leaders’ debate: an apparently brilliant three-way bore draw

Andy Gray, Sky Sport’s chief football pundit, turns to anchor man Richard Keys: “No goals, no shots on target, no incidents of note. There’s no doubt about it, we’ve just watched 90 minutes of absolutely fantastic football on Sky Sports. Football is the winner on the day!” he splutters with feverish excitement.

A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but all too often the channel which has paid so much for the rights to screen live Premier League football spends too much time trying to convince us that it’s worth every penny, instead of occasionally admitting that the game we’ve watched was poor. They’ve invested too much in promoting the product as the pinnacle of televisual sporting transmission to admit that sometimes it just falls flat.

And I can’t help thinking that last night’s leaders’ debate on ITV has met the same fate. Despite my doubts about the whole thing (see my previous blog ‘Watching the party leaders’ mass-debate’), I’ll admit that it was genuinely exciting that it was happening. But the media’s almost orgasmic response to the whole thing leaves me mystified and wondering whether they aren’t just trying to justify years of clamouring for the debates to take place.

Read between the lines of many of the previews of the event and you’ll detect that the outcome was already determined, albeit on dubious grounds: Nick Clegg (with little to lose) would win because he’s unknown and therefore fresh fodder, David Cameron has a slicker media presence, so he’ll be OK, Gordon Brown is the incumbent, so he’s up for a pasting.

Expel those thoughts and watch the debate again. Clegg gave very few responses that informed us what his party would actually do to fix things. David Cameron – touted as the contender who’d feel most comfortable on set – looked truly terrified during the early stages. As for Brown, in many reports the only credit he is given is for cracking the first (surely only?) “joke”, even though it wasn’t funny and he fluffed the delivery.

There were no gaffes, no big punches landed, no real opportunities in the debate’s tight orchestration to pursue a robust and searching line of questioning. But no matter, the important thing, evidently, is that from 90 minutes, if you look hard enough there’s plenty for the media to contrive that will fit into their pre-prepared coverage.

A political counterpart of Andy Gray might more honestly adapt my totally fictitious quote at the top of this piece by saying “No own goals, no in depth policy discussion, no real probing of the leaders. There’s no doubt about it, we’ve watched 90 minutes of nothing much at all. The media is the winner on the day.” But that’s just not good copy, is it?

A neverendum of referendum

Parliament will today debate Gordon Brown’s proposals to hold a referendum on voting reform. In 1975, Callaghan described the referendum on EEC membership as a “rubber life raft into which the whole party would have to climb”. Perhaps Gordon Brown thinks that he can craft his own lifeboat with electoral reform, reviving his chances at the polls.

But is it good use of parliamentary time? Other legislation currently going through Parliament may be sacrificed for it, yet ask the average voter about voting reform and he/she will probably conclude (unfairly) that it doesn’t matter how we elect them, they’ll all be on the make anyway.

Whenever a referendum is suggested, I am baffled. Election turnouts are depressingly low. Why demonstrate further the disengagement of the electorate by asking them to vote on something they either don’t understand to a level of detail that enables informed choices or, more likely, don’t care about?

In this case, I suppose it’s about demonstrating democracy. Giving the people the chance to vote on how they can vote. A democratic double whammy!

Faced with this democratic gambit, David Cameron has responded with… er, petitions. The Conservative leader has said that under a Tory government, any petition signed by more than 100,000 people would guarantee a debate in the House of Commons. One million or more signatures would win you the right to put a Bill before Parliament. UKIP must be licking their lips.

I fear that the idea may have been prompted by Facebook groups (“If 100,000 people join my group MPs must decide who is hotter: Kylie or Danni”*). Petitions will simply encourage further trivialisation of politics and waste even more parliamentary time.

We have a parliamentary system quite capable of delivering good government. What we lack is the public’s trust in that system or in politicians. Cheap imitations of democracy won’t change that and, worse still, is a waste of our time and of Parliament’s time.

* The answer is Kylie.