Eight months after a workplace sexual misconduct scandal erupted and the CBI became embroiled in an existential crisis, the business lobby group has hosted its first significant public event.
The gathering, held at the QEII Centre in Westminster only two days before the government’s autumn statement, hosted 400 delegates and was seen as a relaunch moment. It was also in stark contrast to the corresponding event in Birmingham last year. Then, a far larger audience sat down to a two-day spectacle, including addresses from the prime minister and the leader of the opposition and panels featuring more senior business leaders.
Last year’s conference was led by Tony Danker, who was dismissed as director-general of the CBI in April after an investigation over complaints of misconduct — allegations separate to more serious claims of sexual misconduct and rape that brought the organisation to its knees this year. Danker has claimed he was made the “fall guy” for the scandal and that his name has been wrongly associated with the separate allegations.
After months of uncertainty over whether the CBI could avoid collapse — it had been weakened by an exodus of corporate members, including Aviva, KPMG and the John Lewis Partnership, and by the government and Labour initially distancing themselves amid the fallout — there was obvious relief from the CBI that it was simply able to hold the conference.
Rain Newton-Smith, 48, who was fast-tracked to replace Danker, 51, acknowledged the crisis in her opening remarks: “One of the best things about working for the CBI,” she said, “even in this most difficult of years for us, has always been the inspiration and resilience we gain from you, our members — business leaders across the UK who have overcome adversity with tenacity and innovation.”
Newton-Smith, a former chief economist at the CBI who rejoined after a brief stint with Barclays, was questioned directly on the problems in a “fireside chat” with Kamal Ahmed, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The News Movement. He asked whether the CBI had done enough to change and had the financial means to survive.
She replied : “It’s not been easy by any means, but I think it’s really important we talk about these issues that we see … We’ve secured the funding for the short term, medium term and long term … The vast majority of our members have stayed with us throughout this crisis because they’ve understood the quality of the work that we’re able to do.” That crisis led the CBI to postpone its annual general meeting in September, to close international offices and to cut about a third of its workforce.
On the fringes of yesterday’s conference, members said it had been the agreement of Jeremy Hunt to address the event that had helped to salvage it. Kemi Badenoch, the business and trade secretary, previously had declined an invitation, citing diary commitments.
Hunt, the chancellor, who in April had declared there was “no point” engaging with the CBI, took part in a discussion with Newton-Smith after an earlier address from Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s shadow business secretary. However, Rishi Sunak was conspicuous by his absence. Instead, he was speaking on the economy at a London college, where he announced five new pledges to boost Britain’s productivity.
One source familiar with the CBI, and speaking confidentially, said: “It’s striking that the PM is doing an economy speech somewhere else today.” But they added: “It’s great they’ve got a conference after such a shocking year.”
One member representing a financial organisation at the conference — a body that had “paused” engagement with the CBI this year at the height of the crisis — said: “Fair play for getting Hunt and Reynolds to speak.”
Other speakers yesterday included James Murnieks, chief financial officer of Siemens UK, and Oriel Petry, a senior vice-president of Airbus, on a panel on unlocking economic growth.
Some members stayed away, including Andy Wood, the chief executive of Adnams, the brewer, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the CBI this year. He said it had recovered well and its “relevance” was improving, but added: “The businesses I’m involved with are still staying out for the moment.”
Another source familiar with the CBI said it was “quite a feat to get this far” and that getting enough businesses to renew memberships in the coming months “will still be tricky, but I hope the organisation has turned a corner.
“There is still a place for a pan-sector, pan-economy voice willing to make points that firms themselves often can’t or won’t when speaking with the government directly. So, in that respect, there very much is a case for the CBI’s continued existence.”
Rival business groups have been manoeuvring to fill the CBI’s shoes. The British Chambers of Commerce made an overt push in May at its own annual conference, also addressed by Hunt.
A source with knowledge of the main business lobby groups said the CBI was “on its way back as a smaller, less-resourced voice for big business” — but remained “in an unseemly scrap with the British Chambers of Commerce”.