Mark Kleinman’s exclusive column: Downing Street business adviser pondering exit?
Raging inflation, labour shortages, a weakening currency, supply chain chaos and – in the eyes of many colleagues and opponents alike – a lame duck prime minister: if you thought that being a CEO in such a climate was tough, spare a thought for his own business liaison chief.
Alex Hickman, a co-founder of the Open Europe think-tank and one-time adviser to David Cameron, was picked by Boris Johnson to become special adviser on business, appointments and honours little more than two years ago.
By all accounts, he has done a reasonable job, often in the face of significant headwinds from within Downing Street. Johnson, after all, was the PM whose most memorable exclamation in relation to the private sector seems destined to remain “Fuck business”.
The convening power of the country’s most important address remains potent, however, and despite reservations among some of those invited to serve on Johnson’s Build Back Better Council of business leaders, none – as far as I’m aware – rejected the overture.
There is, though, continued frustration expressed after each of these meetings (which, to be fair to Johnson, is not unique to his administration) about the lack of tangible action arising from them.
All of which might explain why it appears that Hickman has had enough. I understand he has made little secret of the fact that he views his future elsewhere. He has yet to resign, and both he and a Downing Street spokesperson declined to comment when asked whether he is thinking of leaving.
Sources in a number of companies say, though, that he has held various recent conversations about moving on after only 24 months.
The next two years will be a period when business needs a supportive partner in government, with policies genuinely aimed at stimulating economic regrowth and inward investment. Instead, the number of bosses who now glance enviously across the English Channel to the signals they receive from the Macron government must ignite both fear and an acute sense of irony in Downing Street.
Hickman may be little-known outside Westminster and the business world, but his departure would send another desperate signal about Johnson’s approach to the private sector.
A prime minister who slaps windfall taxes on industries purely for political expediency, pursues privatisations for thinly veiled motives and pays little attention to bosses who turn up for talks with him – all of which Johnson has been accused of by his critics – may find it harder than he would like to recruit an adequate replacement.
Amazon dodge digital fraud quiz
Few companies justify the use of the adjective ‘ubiquitous’ as much as Amazon. Except, it seems, when it applies to its presence at parliamentary inquiries convened by the democracies in which it chooses to operate.
Tucked away on the website of the House of Lords select committees on the Fraud Act 2006 and Digital Fraud, is a letter from its chair, Baroness Morgan, to Gaon Hart, an Amazon public policy executive, expressing disappointment at its decision not to give oral evidence to the inquiry.
“There seems to be little justification for this choice and given your global stature, we feel that you have missed an opportunity to act against the serious issue of digital fraud,” the former cabinet minister wrote.
“Clearly, digital fraud is an area of concern for Amazon… [The] blatant relevance of your company to this policy area makes your assertion that no-one in your organisation could speak on the issue of fraud within an evidence session, doubtful.”
In response, Amazon said it ”regularly provides written and oral evidence to Parliament on a broad range of topics. On this occasion, we intend to address the committee’s questions in writing. We take fraud prevention extremely seriously and invest heavily to protect the shopping and selling experience of our customers and selling partners on our stores.”
Baroness Morgan is right, though. Amazon has an army of public affairs executives qualified to address one of the issues most central to confidence in the digital economy. The company risks parliament and other stakeholders drawing the conclusion that it does not care sufficiently about the prevention of fraud damaging its customers. It isn’t too late for the tech behemoth to reconsider its decision.
THG announcement’s timing makes more sense
Curiouser and curiouser. The private equity executive Dominic Murphy’s resignation from the board of THG, the reluctantly London-listed health and beauty group, came just two days before its annual meeting last week. The accompanying announcement was peppered with fulsome praise, with THG founder Matthew Moulding thanking Murphy for his “wealth of experience” and “invaluable contribution to THG over its transformational journey during his tenure”, and Murphy reciprocating with gratitude for his involvement in the company’s “remarkable journey”.
There’s no reason to suspect that the mutual appreciation was anything other than genuine, but a more telling clue about the timing of the announcement may have come on May 19, when CVC Capital Partners, where Murphy works as a partner, announced that it was acquiring a majority stake in The Quality Group, a German-based manufacturer of performance nutrition products such as protein powder and sports supplements. Among its competitors? MyProtein, which is owned by…THG.