Any other business

The Board of Trade won’t boost exports if business conditions aren’t right at home

10 June 2017

9:00 AM

10 June 2017

9:00 AM

The last limp gambit of the Tory campaign was a promise to revive the Board of Trade. As a way of grabbing attention and diverting the ‘Corbyn’s not such a bad bloke’ tendency, you’d have to say it lacked oomph. But was it a good idea? First formally constituted in 1696, the Board itself ceased meeting long ago but the title of ‘President of the Board of Trade’ persists: Michael Heseltine relished using it when he was trade and industry secretary, and it was held before the election by the invisible Liam Fox in his role as would-be negotiator of the trade deals Britain isn’t allowed to negotiate until Brexit is complete.

Now Theresa May proposes a network of nine UK trade commissioners dotted around the world. That sounds more useful than having a gone-tomorrow politician like Fox, or an embarrassment like Prince Andrew, blundering around — but will the commissioners make a blind bit of difference, or will they just eat another slice of budget that might otherwise have been spent on elegant embassy parties?

The truth is that our future trade depends first on the long-term strength or weakness of the pound; secondly, on WTO tariffs and whatever terms, punitive or pragmatic, Brussels is prepared to agree for our post-Brexit exports into the EU; thirdly and crucially, on the quality of the goods and services we seek to sell and the willingness of UK companies to invest in product development. In that sense, creating the right conditions for business at home — in terms of tax, red tape, skilled labour and R&D support — will be vastly more important than sending token civil-servants-turned-salesmen abroad.

The next Chancellor

Philip Hammond, whose business experience includes overseas consultancy work for the World Bank, would make a dignified President of the Board of Trade if, as has been widely predicted, he’s no longer Chancellor by the weekend. He might also enjoy an extended spell of foreign travel after months of being sniped at by Mrs May’s clique. So who might replace him in the Exchequer role, assuming of course that it isn’t John McDonnell?


What with wage rises lagging behind inflation, retail sales sharply down in May, rents and house prices beginning to fall and still no clarity on the impact of Brexit, the new Chancellor faces the post-election challenge of steadying national confidence while introducing what may well be painful fiscal changes. Safe hands are called for, but whose?

Amber Rudd had a good campaign, but it would be odd to move her from the Home Office when terror attacks are top of the new government’s agenda; and her own past business dealings have perhaps attracted too much of the Guardian’s attention. Sir Michael Fallon is a wily dog who always makes himself useful, so he can’t be ruled out. And my mole who brings in the Downing Street cappuccinos names Ben Gummer — formerly minister for the Cabinet Office and number three at the Treasury as Paymaster General — as the up-and-comer to watch.

But my money for the No. 11 shirt is on Greg Clark, the business secretary who started his working life at Boston Consulting Group and has been beavering away quietly to reassure key businesses such as Nissan about their post-Brexit future, while Theresa May’s own contribution was to spout half-baked Heathite ideas (scripted, every-one assumes, by her sidekick Nick Timothy) about governance reform and workers’ rights. Clark isn’t charismatic, but he is articulate, cerebral and sympathetic to business, and he has a steely glint in his eye: a superior version of Hammond, you might say.

Hiding in the BA toilet

Another of my moles, the one at British Airways HQ, at last switches his phone back on and offers a possible explanation for the airline’s pathetic response to its recent computer failure — now being blamed on ‘human error’. It wasn’t my man who actually pulled the plug out by mistake, but he tells me the trouble may have had its roots under an earlier regime when he and other managers were ordered to attend ‘Putting People First’ courses on the subject of ‘customer service recovery’. This used to be a fashionable management theme, drawing on crisis case studies from companies such as Domino’s Pizza and the photocopier maker Rank-Xerox. ‘A good recovery can turn angry, frustrated customers into loyal ones,’ said a 1990 Harvard Business Review essay. ‘It can create more goodwill than if things had gone smoothly in the first place.’

Very much what BA missed over the past fortnight, in fact — and my man confesses it may have been his fault. Unkeen on attending the courses, he dodged the first two but turned up for a third under disciplinary threat, then ‘hid in the toilet hoping to escape after sign-in’. Perhaps the current BA senior team observed that episode and thought hiding in the toilet was an essential part of the training.

The heart of Uber

Uber, the Californian venture that has revolutionised personal transport and helped transform the world of work, fired 20 employees this week after an enquiry into hundreds of claims of sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination. This is the latest in a series of banana skins for the $68 billion company, which attracts bad PR in proportion to the rate at which its car service conquers new cities around the globe. Critics now watch avidly after terror attacks, for example, to see whether and how quickly Uber’s ‘surge pricing’ is disabled — or whether it can be accused of ‘profiteering’ as it was after the Westminster terror attack in March. All this may be partly a blackening of Uber by defenders of entrenched taxi cartels, but it’s also what happens when a hollowed-out, app-driven business concept grows into a global monster. As a former Uber manager put it to me: ‘Smart company, bad heart.’

 

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