Tony Danker’s days at the CBI are over and the CBI’s days of influence might also have come to an end, writes Eliot Wilson
Over the last two weeks, Britain’s largest trade body has been trading on very little. Yesterday, Tony Danker was sacked as head of the Confederation of British Industry after a string of allegations of sexual misconduct.
But the problem is now much bigger than Danker himself: similar but separate allegations have been published, in which more than a dozen women claim to have been harassed or assaulted by senior figures at the CBI.
Let us be in no doubt: in reputational and cultural terms, these allegations, if proven, are hugely damaging and destructive. Taken collectively, they paint a picture of a positively antiquated atmosphere at the lobbying organisation which claims to speak for 190,000 businesses.
The most serious allegation is the one which perhaps packs most toxic stereotypes into the fewest words: one woman claims that in 2019 she was “raped by a senior colleague at a CBI summer boat party”, in the stiffly neutral words of the BBC. That is, as my former colleagues in public relations would say, not a good look.
These accusations are shocking and must be pursued to their fullest conclusion and as much justice as possible delivered for the victims. More broadly, however, it has raised genuinely existential questions about the CBI itself. Last week, the government suspended its dealings with the CBI—”paused” was the word being used in Whitehall—a grievous blow to its influence.
It might be that the CBI’s culture isn’t the only thing which is antiquated about the institution, but the nature of its dealings itself.
Relations with the government are what the CBI is for. It is a representative organisation for businesses of all sizes and in all sectors to promote the interests of its members in the formulation and development of public policy, and to provide intelligence and data for its members. It has been the mainstream face of British business for some time now, though it is not as venerable an institution as one might imagine. It was formed only in 1965, in the early days of Harold Wilson’s first government, when three smaller trade bodies came together to maximise their effectiveness.
Already the hare has been set running that the CBI has suffered a fatal injury. Twenty years ago, this might not have been the case, but in terms of image and public standing, the #MeToo movement changed everything. And if the CBI cannot get access to government, what is the point of it?
If the CBI is holed below the waterline, perhaps it is time to find the silver lining of opportunity in this dank, mucky cloud. In many ways, it is an old-fashioned organisation, created to work in an ecosystem which no longer exists. The CBI was born into a world of considerable government intervention in business, and a post-war economic model which was driven by the three principal actors of government, business and the trades unions.
In 1965, there were more than 10 million trades union members; today there are fewer than 6.5 million. The CBI was created less than two months before the government unveiled its National Plan, based on a belief that the government could coordinate the economy and supervise growth across sectors. And the size, distribution and specialisms of British business in 1965, when manufacturing was still substantial and many industries were still in public ownership, are unrecognisable from today.
This might be the time to rethink the relationship between government and business. Greater transparency is a non-negotiable, given the poisonous air at large now. A new body would have to be more responsive to its whole membership, not just the high rollers and major employers, and should be flexible enough to understand and represent the diversity of the modern UK’s economy.
Its relationship with government may be less cosy, but it should be more open and honest, and founded on a shared acceptance of where the economy is now. The business and trade secretary, Kemi Badenoch, has the air of a reformer about her, so let us see if she can engage with every enterprise which fuels our wealth and prosperity, and form a healthy, realistic interaction built on mutual respect. The CBI may be beyond saving, but the opportunity is still there.