James Ashton: The grandees at the Flower Show won't be on gardening leave for long

My Week

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The Independent Online

A night at the Chelsea Flower Show presents an ideal opportunity to assess who’s up, who’s down and who will be back in corporate life before long.

On Monday, it was the changing of the guard at the Asia-focused bank Standard Chartered that caught the eye. Outgoing boss Peter Sands darted from garden to garden, while Bill Winters, his replacement installed after long-running boardroom tensions, was in hot demand on a chilly evening.

I chatted to Sir Ian Cheshire and Sam Laidlaw, who respectively departed the B&Q owner Kingfisher and Centrica late last year. They have both been on long holidays and are raring to go again. Sir Ian was linked to the chairmanship of Tesco but has so far just been promoted to become the Government’s lead non-executive, sprinkling advice across Whitehall departments. Mr Laidlaw, for all the brickbats fired his way while running the parent company of British Gas, is on the lookout too. Expect both of them to be returned to a FTSE berth before Chelsea next year.

A tale of two economists

Wednesday was interesting. Within a few hours of each other, I heard the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and George Osborne expound all that was wrong and right about the British economy.

Mr Stiglitz, in town to promote his new book, The Great Divide, is convinced that growing inequality in society can be overcome by an overhaul of political policy – that there does not have to be a choice between growth and fairness. He was surprised that the long decline in Britain’s real wages did not come across more prominently in the general election campaign and that the message of job creation won out when that of value creation for all might have been an Achilles heel for the Conservatives.

Speaking to the annual dinner of the CBI employers’ trade body, Mr Osborne played up the prosperity that economic security promises, and the foundation he already has to deliver that from. Time will tell. Listening intently was a strong contingent of Labour leadership hopefuls – Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Mary Creagh – who will have heeded the 7 May message that coming across as anti-business is no winning formula.

Messrs Stiglitz and Osborne agreed on at least one thing: productivity must be boosted if the UK is to rebuild living standards. The Chancellor said he would rather have that challenge ahead than one of mass unemployment. As Labour rebuilds bridges, Mr Osborne has the chance to prove, through investing in areas such as infrastructure and skills, that workers can have it all – without the punitive wealth taxes that Mr Stiglitz might advocate.

Who will be the new face of the CBI?

The former Diageo boss Paul Walsh might still make the grade as the CBI’s next president. His appointment became problematic for the normally apolitical CBI when he signed a letter endorsing the Tories’ business-friendly policies during the election campaign. The decision lies in the hands of members.

It is the 50th anniversary of the CBI, so pictures of past bosses – mostly grey-haired men – flashed up on screens around the Grosvenor House dining room on Wednesday night. I sat next to Dame Helen Alexander, who used to run the Economist Group and has so far been the only woman to take up the two-year presidency.

Arguably more interesting is who succeeds John Cridland early next year as director-general. His deputy, Katja Hall, is hotly tipped. The Swede, who has lived in Britain since she was a teenager, would certainly put a different accent on the debate over the UK’s continued EU membership, of which the CBI is fervently in favour.

More power to George Osborne

The effective scrapping of UK Financial Investments, announced in the Chancellor’s CBI address, is timely. The body that manages the Government’s stakes in Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and bits and pieces left over from Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock has often felt like a fig leaf for the Chancellor’s whims. Now that Lloyds is well on the way to being re-privatised, UKFI has even less to occupy it.

So a merger with the Shareholder Executive – which oversees state assets such as Channel 4, the uranium processor Urenco and Ordnance Survey – to create UK Government Investments (UKGI), makes sense. What is interesting is that the new operation becomes part of the Treasury, whereas the Shareholder Executive used to sit within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Mr Osborne’s empire grows steadily larger.

Nationwide could have been a contender

So farewell Graham Beale, who will have had an eventful nine years at the helm of Nationwide when he bows out next year. The numbers looked good yesterday, but I can’t help feeling that they should be better.

The mutually owned Nationwide was gifted a great opportunity in the wake of the financial crisis to grab customers disaffected by the big five lenders. The original financial services challenger struggled to take it.

The business was revealed to be not so different from the rest, getting caught up in the PPI mis-selling scandal. Or else, as other mutuals got into financial difficulty, its ownership structure was deemed to be too different by some. Bad blood with the regulator, which led to Nationwide raising £500m to meet capital demands, didn’t help. Nor did its bland marketing. It could have been the John Lewis of banking, using its great strength in mortgages as a launch pad to expand. Maybe the next chap can have a go, but British banking is awash with challengers now.

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