EU Referendum: Why did British bosses lose their bottle on Brexit while Boris jumped the gun?

My Week

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The Independent Online

Sunday was unusually busy for financial journalists, although there was only one story in town: which side would Boris Johnson come out for in the Brexit debate? 

The trouble was, we weren’t supposed to find out until 10pm, when his editors at The Daily Telegraph would reveal all by publishing his column for the paper. It would be a scoop and a half, generating huge advertising revenue for the Telegraph’s website. For the rest of us in newspaperland, we would just have to dig in and wait.

But, like a wet-nosed puppy being trained to “sit and stay” before rushing to the doggy chew, Boris couldn’t hold it in and rushed his decision out in the afternoon, before speaking to the cameras. Telegraph executives were furious at their star columnist scooping them like that. “Duplicitous git,” was how one described him to me over a glass of red.

Anyway, to fill the news vacuum while we waited, at lunchtime people close to Downing Street started leaking copies of the letter that 200 chief executives and company chairmen were signing in support of the In campaign. 

Sources gave the names of some of the signatories to people like me, but they spoke too soon. Some of the bosses shied away and refused to sign, despite much cajoling from Number 10. 

The biggest name to bottle it was Barclays, whose name was given to journalists in a briefing on Sunday but ended up not appearing when the letter finally appeared. That was odd – the bank’s public position was already stated and anti-Brexit. Its chairman, John McFarlane, is one of the toughest blokes in the City, having now sacked two chief executives in his last two chairmanships. As such, he’s not the lily-livered type. 

Perhaps he concurred with another FTSE 100 Inner who yesterday told me he refused to sign because the letter talked about Britain being “safer” in Europe. “I’m in real estate,” he explained. “How the bloody hell do I know if we’re safer in Europe? All I know is that we’ll get the mother of all commercial property crashes if we leave.”

How dare women want to stay in the EU

The letter was finally published in Tuesday’s Times, only for the signatories to have their reputations destroyed in the pro-Brexit media the next day. One tabloid dismissed three of the female chiefs who signed the letter as “brassy broads”, while another dug up an old picture of a fourth posing in a bikini. Subtext:  how dare they a) be pro-EU; b) express their democratic right to disagree with us; and c) be women?

The shape of things to come with visas?

On Tuesday I met up one of the signatories for a bite at Christopher’s, a restaurant that, being in the heart of Covent Garden, did spectacularly well in the noughties heyday of private equity deals. Many of the big wheels of that dubious world were based in the quiet nearby streets, and would discuss their deals at Christopher’s over rare steak and fries. These days, it still seems to do well, though the takeover barons of old have mostly retired wealthy or come unstuck as their financial engineering ended in disaster.

My companion was an engineer of a more beneficial kind to society – aeronautical, not financial. Paul Kahn is the UK boss of the vast plane and helicopter maker Airbus. As such, he employs – directly or indirectly through the supply chain – 100,000 Brits. To my mind, that means we should listen to his advice when considering whether or not to stay in the EU.

Although he looks 35, Mr Kahn is actually 50 and has seen a thing or two in his career. His previous job was running the Canadian operation of the French engineer Thales, which helps make, among other things, British trains.

He told me how, when he was at Thales, a promising young British engineer had wanted a transfer to Canada to gain more experience. Mr Kahn approved her move and she was all set to go when Canadian immigration refused her visa. The country’s quota for foreign trainees was all used up, they said. Try again next year. 

Another time, he wanted to transfer a senior Canadian executive to France. The process of getting him visa approval took three long months. And that was fast, compared with most French visas. He did transfer eventually, but after all that waiting, the French Thales team said: “Next time, let’s just get a European.”

If the UK does come out of the EU, Mr Kahn says, sure, we’ll get control of our borders back. But so will Europe. Do we really want to be treated like Canadians? 

The tax they avoid heals our wounds

Several company bosses have asked me why I spend so much time investigating the tax- avoidance tricks of multinationals. The likes of Apple, LinkedIn, Starbucks and Google aren’t breaking the law, they say; who but the insane would pay more tax than they absolutely have to?

The answer I always give is simple: because these companies benefit enormously from state services funded by the taxes they should be paying. That may be through the schools that educate their UK staff and customers, the hospitals that heal them when they’re sick, or the police and military who keep them safe.

Over the past week or so, my 10-year-old has convinced me even more of this. He scalded himself badly, requiring a dash to accident & emergency and a series of treatments at the local children’s burns unit. The care we had was fast, kind and, best of all, effective. 

I’d like to thank the doctors and nurses at St Thomas’s A&E and the Mars ward at Chelsea and Westminster. You deserve every penny of corporation tax that comes your way.