May to reboot business relations as key staff quit Number 10
Lobbyists are yet to see ‘meaningful engagement’ with the corporate world.
Theresa May is set to make a last ditch effort to reboot Number 10’s relations with business after losing her government relations director and her policy chief.
The prime minister and her chief of staff Gavin Barwell are believed to be planning to create a new business advisory group - less than a year after May dissolved a business advisory group established by David Cameron. They are also said to be searching for a "big hitter" to rebuild relations with the business community.
It comes as corporate lobbyists told PAN that "the time for concerted and meaningful engagement is overdue" and that "improving relations with business is now key".
It also follows the departures this week of government relations director Chris Brannigan, a former lieutenant colonel in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and policy director John Godfrey, who was recruited from Legal & General. Both men are understood to have been appointed by May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy.
Sources said that Chris Hopkins, a business relations adviser at Number 10, was also expected to depart.
The prime minister’s other key business adviser is former Bell Pottinger lobbyist Jimmy McLoughlin. The son of the Tory party chairman is Number 10’s head of business liaison.
When Cameron's business advisory group was dissolved last year, May’s team said that she wanted to engage with business in a different way from her predecessor. But many businesses quickly concluded that Number 10 was less interested in working with them than initial signs suggested.
"It’s become a truism that No 10 shut out business after the EU referendum, partly as a punishment for being remainers almost to a man and woman. But it is a fact of life that a government can only govern credibly with the explicit and implicit support of business and employers," said Weber Shandwick corporate and public affairs chairman Jon McLeod this week.
Now it appears that the prime minister has acknowledged concerns from senior business leaders over their lack of access to Downing Street at a critical time for many investors, with formal Brexit talks now underway.
One insider said: "The PM believes rightly that her government doesn’t have strong enough relationships with the corporate world. The blame for this lies with Fi Hill and Nick Timothy. But Brannigan et al are taking the blame."
May is said to have discreet relations with a small number of "c-suite and above" advisers that she and her husband have known for years. But the source indicated that the prime minister and her closest allies were now keen to take soundings from many more business bosses.
"They are planning to create a new business advisory group, and are trying to identify a big hitter for business relations," said the insider.
A Downing Street spokesman did not not deny the plans to create a new business advisory group.
Senior UK lobbyists welcomed the new approach, saying it was about time that the prime minister stepped up her engagement with business.
McLeod said: "With the recent departures and the fractious state of industry generally over Brexit, the time for concerted and meaningful engagement is overdue."
Cicero Group chairman Iain Anderson said: "Improving relations with business is now key. The Tory manifesto gave mixed signals at best. With a rejuvenated Labour Party, Number 10 needs to make a big open offer towards fostering enterprise."
FTI Consulting head of public affairs Alex Deane said: "The Business Advisory Group under Cameron was highly valued by business leaders. Theresa May is doing well in my view and has weathered the worst of the post-election fallout, but if business is a constituency that matters to Number 10 – which surely it must, especially in the Brexit environment – then improving relations through some sort of resurrected group is a good idea."
And Public First founding partner James Frayne said: "It's not surprising No 10 is desperately looking to rebuild its damaged relationship with business. Given their precarious hold on power, the last thing they need is businesses questioning their economic judgement.
"They also desperately need corporate leaders to help them make serious policy on Brexit. There isn't anything like enough capacity in Whitehall for such a job and they need to hear from people on the front line of the economy to make sure they don't mess it up."
Picture by: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images.