Lunch with… George McGregor
PRCA director general Francis Ingham lunches with Interel UK managing partner and group head of public affairs George McGregor at Shepherd’s restaurant.
I meet with Interel’s George McGregor in the midst of Labour’s latest crisis, with Corbyn apparently on track for his second leadership victory. I joked that George must be happy with the world right now. It’s fair to say that he did not concur.
“I’m distraught. I’ve been a Labour Party member for 33 years, and for the first time ever I have contemplated leaving. It’s almost certain that Jeremy Corbyn is going to win the leadership election. I am a friend of Owen Smith, and a supporter of Owen Smith. I think he would be a fantastic leader of the Labour Party, but it’s not looking good at the moment.
“However, the last couple of years have been a time of upsets. Not many people predicted that Cameron would win a majority, and not many said that Brexit would happen.”
I can’t help but point out that Lionel Zetter and I predicted both actually. But that minor jibe aside, we return to Labour.
He tells me: “The important question is what do the 170 MPs who voted against him do? Some of them will be loyal to the Labour party and be inclined to accept the result. Whereas others will consider forming a new political grouping within parliament, maybe via the Labour Co-operative group.
“But if that’s going to happen it will require people to travel as a pack. It’s not going to be successful if you get 10, 20 or even 50 MPs deciding to take that course of action.”
I observe that Smith’s platform isn’t exactly that of an SDP Mark II. He’s recently announced his 20 economic policies and they seem pretty far left to me. George disagrees
“No, I think it’s soft left, it’s very 1980s. It’s reminiscent of Kinnock. A lot of people in the Labour party feel that all of the work they’ve undertaken over decades is being threatened by Jeremy Corbyn. If Corbyn is leader in the next election, Labour is heading for at best 25%.”
Which seems pretty clear as predictions go. So we turn to the Tories.
He says: “Theresa May is a breath of fresh air. In losing David Cameron, they have refreshed their brand, and re-launched themselves within government. It was something the Labour party was unable to do when it transitioned from Blair to Brown. The Tory party has done it brilliantly, and May is unashamedly going to the centre ground, and stealing Labour’s rhetoric. She has started extraordinarily well, and she is going to be a formidable opponent.”
I ask George if he thinks she will call an early election. A one-word answer ensues: “Nope.”
So why not? “Because she is dominant. She’s got the Cabinet she wants. She has a majority in parliament. She’s got a very tricky couple of years with Brexit. Brexit is not going to be easy, and having an election throws in a degree of uncertainty. She doesn’t strike me as a bold, risk-taking person.
“However, if she ends up at 45% on the polls and Labour are tanking at 25%, and you ask me that question in a year’s time, then you might get a different answer”
So when will Article 50 be triggered I ask? When do you think Brexit will happen?
He suggests 2017. “The delay will make people in Brussels hopping mad. But those are the rules, and they’re going to have to go at the UK’s pace. I think what’s much more interesting is what will the French and German and Spanish and Italian governments have to say? The positions of the national Governments are much more important than the positions of Juncker and the Commission.”
No second referendum?
“Not going to happen,” he says. “Labour is too weak. If Labour had been organised, and had a firm leader, you could see it being revisited. So Brexit means Brexit, and May is going to complete some kind of deal. My view is that we’re going to end up with a Canada Plus model. It won’t include freedom of movement, and so it won’t include staying within the single market.”
I ask how Interel is doing and I’m told the business is “thriving”.
He adds: “Around 85% of the business is public affairs, and Brexit is an opportunity for us. We have already added clients with a specific brief to help them through the negotiation process, so in the short run Brexit is going to be very good for business.
“Because we have offices in Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and London, as well as a network of partners throughout the rest of the EU, we are in an incredibly strong position to help clients.”
And finally. What’s the one thing PAN readers might not know about George?
“When I was 10, I became stranded on the top of Ben Nevis. My brother and I, with another friend who was 11 climbed up. We left the tourist path. Very big mistake. It got dark, and we were up Ben Nevis on our own.
“There was no path, and it was pitch dark so we came straight down the mountain. We found a burn, and it didn’t have any water in it, so we followed it. But the trouble with going down a burn is it’s quite steep, so we literally just clambered down the side of the mountain.
“Horrendous. It was the most terrifying experience of my life.”
The Interel boss concludes that he as a result of his experience he now has “respect for mountains”. Though maybe not for Jeremy Corbyn.
2 x brioche and girolles