‘People listen to business leaders’ shock. Is it an omen for that other referendum?

Scots seem to be listening to the bosses on independence while the UK ignoring them on the EU

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The Independent Online

No prizes for guessing what dominated the week. The Sunday opinion poll showing that the “yes” vote in Scotland was in the lead had the most galvanising effect.

I cannot think of another poll that has ever moved the equity and currency markets, or forced the cancellation of Prime Minister’s Questions and all three main party leaders to rearrange their diaries and rush off somewhere.

Polls are fickle. But what this one showed was that the 20-point lead held for so long by the “no” campaign had evaporated. Nobody is under any illusion: the decision will go all the way to the wire.

Corporate chiefs have entered the maelstrom. Frequently they’re ignored by voters – and that is the experience to date as far as that other referendum is concerned, where the business community which is overwhelmingly pro-EU has struggled to make any headway against Ukip.

This time, though, the public appear to be taking notice. When I discussed this juxtaposition – of the Scots listening to the bosses on independence but the UK ignoring them on the EU – to a professional political campaign manager over lunch, he said it was a question of timing. The Scottish debate is near the end and the atmosphere is febrile; the EU ballot may be two years away and minds simply are not so concentrated.

If I were involved with one of the bodies fighting for the UK to stay in the EU, such as Business for New Europe, I would be feeling encouraged by what’s happening in Scotland. Whether, of course, the Scots continue to take heed of business and on Thursday actually vote “no” remains to be seen.

Camelot could seem a charmed life

Tuesday found me at a farewell lunch for Dianne Thompson, the soon-to-retire chief executive of Camelot, the National Lottery operator. Ms Thompson is retiring after 17 years at the helm. Such has been the force of her driven, enthusiastic, usually good-humoured personality that it’s difficult to imagine Camelot without her. She really is a rarity: a woman at the very top of business who has stayed the course and left on her own terms. She will not be quitting the commercial world, however. Arguably she’s taking on an even greater challenge than running Camelot: she’s bought the George Hotel in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight with the aim of turning it into “one of the top 10 boutique hotels in the UK”.

Where will the Scots go to win millions?

Over lunch, one question, predictably, was on Scotland and whether Alex Salmond’s new nation, if that turns out to be the case, will still get to play the UK National Lottery? Camelot would not say. But it’s doubtful whether a country of only 4 million people could sustain its own successful game.

It may be no use Mr Salmond saying his countrymen will opt for the EuroMillions draw instead. One of the shareholders in EuroMillions is Spain, and it would probably block a move by Scotland to be included for fear of providing a boost to the Catalans and their fight for independence.

The end of the peer show

On Wednesday I had a coffee with an ennobled businessman. When he received his peerage, he was madly excited at the prospect of being able “to make a difference”, to make his views felt, to improve Britain. That was then. Now he’s thoroughly disillusioned, complaining it’s impossible to get anything done, the place is too crowded, full of elderly people who’ve only ever worked in politics, not business.

The case for a British Chapter 11

When two leading business lights from different backgrounds argue passionately for the same reform then it’s clear something is seriously amiss. So it is with Harold Tillman, the fashion retailer and former chair of London Fashion Week, and Karan Bilimoria, now Lord Bilimoria (he is not the life peer I referred to earlier), the founder of Cobra Beer.

I met them separately this week. They each maintain more needs to be done to protect firms in trouble – to ring-fence them from predators until they’ve had a chance to map out a timeline for recovery.

In Mr Tillman’s case, he was powerless to prevent his Jaeger and Aquascutum brands from being put into administration. He was close to doing a deal that would have strengthened their balance sheets when the bank grew impatient and sold Jaeger’s debt. The new owner put Jaeger into administration, which also sealed the fate of Aquascutum (it had borrowed from Jaeger and could not repay the loans).

Mr Tillman now wants US-style Chapter 11 insolvency protection here. “The banks try to get their money back straightaway by grabbing the low-hanging fruit. If we had the ability to do debt workouts, as they have in the US, 80 per cent of our shops that have closed would still be open.”

Lord Bilimoria is of exactly the same view. Five years ago, Cobra got into difficulty. His solution was to do “a pre-pack” – to find a buyer for the company before putting it into administration. He found one in Molson Coors, the giant North American brewer. It bought Cobra, but unsecured creditors, who were owed more than £40m by Lord Bilimoria’s company, received nothing. They’ve since been repaid, and he is delighted at being part of Molson Coors.

Nevertheless, the episode provoked a nasty taste, with Lord Bilimoria being accused of walking away from his obligations. It was, he says, the only option available to him. “I would say in my defence that I’m the first person to think pre-packs deserve their bad reputation. Rightly so, as they were misused. People chose literally to close down their business one day and start up again the next, having not paid their creditors.” It would be much better, he argues, if we had an alternative, like our own Chapter 11.

Neither man is a slouch. They merit a proper hearing.

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