Lunch with... Burhan Al-Gailani
PRCA director general Francis Ingham dines with Brands2 Life head of public affairs Burhan Al-Gailani at Shepherd's restaurant.
Burhan Al-Gailani and I met up for lunch as one of the craziest party conference seasons in years was making its impact felt. So. How did he see the political scene?
"There’s a new reality right now. Who would have thought that Jeremy Corbyn and his left-wing programme would be commanding all that he surveys within the party? It’s extraordinary really."
I observed that it was party capture on a quite remarkable basis, and Burhan agreed - though with a caveat.
"It is. But it shows that people have been crying out for something a bit different. And whatever you think of his policy programme, he does come across as authentic. For the foreseeable future, he’s not going anywhere. He’s riding high."
And who could disagree? Just managing to stay on the horse right now is surely the Tory goal?
"Well… Where do you start? For me, the main thing that’s quite disappointing is that there seems to be a lack of conviction in Conservative views. They are reacting to the agenda being set by others, as opposed to starting from first principles, and making the case for personal responsibility, or the free market, or competition, or whatever it may be. They are being buffeted around a lot."
Which being the case, how should the Party respond I ask? Burhan’s answer is direct.
"It needs to have confidence in its convictions. In a recent speech, the Prime Minister was talking about free markets and competition. That’s very welcome, but it needs to be followed through and acted in all sorts of areas of policy. Whether that’s in different consumer markets like energy or telecoms; or whether that’s in areas like housing, where it needs to increase supply in order to bring down the cost of housing. Brexit is huge -it’s obviously going to take a massive amount of energy and time and political capital- but we desperately need a unified front, and to address other issues too."
So, we’ve moved on to that inevitable six-letter word: Brexit. Will it actually happen?
"I think so - we’re on a path that it’s very hard to get off from. Whether you agreed with Brexit or not, it’s fundamentally undemocratic to try and reverse that decision. So, it’s a question of making the best outcome of that. It’s disappointing that the Government doesn’t have a unified position a lot of the issues, and that it triggered the process without having that clarity of what they were trying to achieve. But we are where we are, and we have to try and make the best of it that we can."
We move on from what Burhan has described as kind of a done deal to what some would describe as a done party: the Lib Dems. Will Vince Cable be proved right in his assertion that he’s a Prime Minister in waiting? Burhan laughs.
"Anything’s possible as we’ve learnt in politics over the last couple of years. Though I can’t foresee those circumstances any time soon."
True. Cable can’t exactly play the long game. Speaking of the long game. Brands2Life has always been an agency prepared to be calm; to take its time; and to keep on growing. An impressive agency that doesn’t need to shout about its impressiveness all of the time. What’s going on their right now?
"It’s an exciting time to be doing public affairs at Brands2 Life. We’re doing some interesting work with clients in, for example, technology, food and drink, energy. Some of the results that we’re delivering for clients are genuinely influencing debates, and changing policies. One of the key things that I think makes us different is the integration piece. A lot of agencies talk about integration, but genuinely we live and breathe it."
On which positive note, I turn to my two final questions. Burhan is my first PAN interview since the expulsion of Bell Pottinger. He used to work at Good Relations - so what’s his take?
"Obviously, some things that happened on that account were not correct. But I also think that not everyone in the organisation is associated with that account, or with those sorts of practices. A lot of people have lost their jobs and are looking for work, and it’s sad that a once legendary agency has had its comeuppance in this way. I suppose it shows you the transience of things in our industry, and how you must really be thinking about best practice and standards. It’s important that organisations like PRCA try and raise those standards, and give people confidence in the industry."
And I couldn’t disagree with a word of that. Finally, one thing about Burhan that readers won’t know, and that he’s happy to share with them?
"My family is from Iraq, and one of my ancestors in, probably about the 11th century, founded one of the four main schools of Sufi Islam. So, there’s a Mosque in Baghdad which is in his honour essentially."
Which is a claim to fame that few of us have! And on which note, we tuck in...
Cromer Crab and Shepherd’s Pie; Cured Duck and another plate of pie
Mineral water. (Shocking I know)