The Confederation of British Industry was embroiled in an embarrassing political row yesterday after refusing to endorse a campaign promoted by its incoming president, the British Airways chairman Sir Colin Marshall, extolling the Government's economic record.
The CBI's frantic attempt to distance itself from the controversial initiative is certain to cause friction in its ranks and was seized on yesterday by Labour.
Also among the dozen leading businessmen who have lent their names to the campaign are Sir David Lees, chairman of GKN, and Nigel Rudd, chairman of Williams Holdings and the glassmaker Pilkington, both of whom are members of the CBI's policy-making president's committee.
However, a CBI spokesman said: "We cannot endorse this campaign because we are not a party political organisation. Those who have backed it are business leaders in their own right and they are entitled to do what they want in that capacity."
The initiative is estimated to have cost pounds 50,000 and involves sending out 50,000 copies of a glossy brochure extolling the UK economy to other business leaders and opinion-formers
The booklet is accompanied by a letter from the Prime Minister, John Major, and is similar to the last Conservative Party political broadcast, which used quotes from foreign newspapers and companies praising the UK economy.
The two organisers of the campaign - Sir Tim Bell, chairman of Lowe Bell, and Peter Gummer, chairman of the public relations firm Shandwick, are well known as senior advisers to the Conservative Party.
Andrew Smith, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said: "The Conservatives can produce as many glossy documents as they like in as many different guises but it will not make people feel any better about the economy. The fact remains that hard-hit electors will not be convinced by brochures while they are living with the Tories' disastrous handling of the economy."
Among the companies quoted are Siemens, Philips, Toshiba and BMW, which describes Britain as "currently the most attractive country among all European locations for producing cars".
Sir Tim said funding was raised by Mr Gummer through the Life's Better in Britain Foundation while Lowe Bell did the printing and distribution.
However, Sir Tim denied that it was a piece of party political propaganda. "In the sense that the Government is in charge of running the economic policy of the country it supports the Government. But there has been no attempt to be duplicitous or to deceive here and it is not a devious way of putting out Tory propaganda."
Sir Tim said subscriptions had come from the businessmen whose names appear in the booklet and "one or two others who are not mentioned". But a BA spokesman said Sir Colin had not made any financial contribution either directly or through the airline.
The other businessmen named are: Lord Hanson, chairman of Hanson, Christopher Lewinton, chairman of TI, Sir Stanley Kalms, chairman of Dixons, Sir Nigel Mobbs, chairman of Slough Estates, Richard Oster, chief executive of Cookson, Dieter Bock, chief executive of Lonrho, John Neill, chief executive of Unipart, and Lord Sheppard, former chairman of Grand Metropolitan and now chairman of London First.
Comment, page 21Reuse content