A lobbying firm is launching a one-year business engagement operation ahead of the next general election in what is likely to be one of multiple attempts to exploit the vacuum left by the crisis at the CBI.
WPI Strategy, a public affairs group behind the imminent launch of “BizUK”, insisted that it was not trying to replicate or replace the CBI. The business umbrella group, until now pre-eminent in the UK, is facing a existential crisis over harassment and rape allegations.
But the move is set to be one of numerous attempts to take advantage of the CBI’s woes — or potential demise — after the departure of a long list of household names, including Jaguar Land Rover, John Lewis, Kingfisher and Aviva, from its membership roster.
The CBI said after an emergency board meeting on Friday that it would suspend its core operations until June.
Although there are other umbrella business organisations in the UK, they tend to have a particular focus. For example Make UK represents manufacturers and the Federation of Small Businesses does not have members which are listed on the FTSE.
A chief executive at a CBI member company said the cascade of negative news stories about the lobbying group proffered an excuse to inquire broadly about setting up new avenues to engage with the government.
“Individuals who believe there should be an alternative are looking to see if they can drum up support and financial backing for a new body,” he said. A handful of companies were in talks about setting up an alternative body, he said, acknowledging there were others engaging in their own discussions.
In one example, Maurice Ostro, who chaired the independent lobby group Business Action Council during the pandemic, said in recent months he had sought to revive conversations with the Conservative government and the opposition Labour party.
While he said he was not looking to replace the CBI, and his talks were not linked to the travails of the industry group, this was an opportune time for a “new series of engagements”, probably after the King’s coronation, he said.
WPI has previously convened temporary campaigns involving multiple business leaders, including a Covid Recovery Commission and a campaign against business rates called “Cutting the Shops Tax”.
In a letter sent to FTSE 100 companies on Friday and first published by Sky News, WPI director Nick Faith said BizUK would support businesses’ representation to the main political parties in the “critical” pre-election period.
“This is being set up in the light of the issues currently affecting the CBI, which while hopefully temporary do mean there is an acknowledged lack of representation on crucial national policy issues for at least the period towards the next election,” he wrote.
Faith said in the letter that WPI had spoken to the government and Labour about the initiative, which will produce four reports setting out positions on major policy areas. “To be clear from the outset we are not looking to replace the CBI. We are not a trade body,” he said.
Earlier this month the CBI fired Tony Danker, its director-general, after allegations about his personal conduct. Subsequently and separately, allegations of two rapes inside the organisation were made.
Danker said this week that he had been made the “fall guy” for serious allegations.
One board chair said lots of companies were using the crisis at the CBI to cancel their memberships, as many had already established direct contact with the government in recent years.
“Most companies have their own lobbying route, and are increasingly involved in their own business councils linked to their industry. The CBI’s role over time has become less and less clear.”