Outlook: CBI has become merely a stage for politicians

THE LEADERSHIP of the Confederation of British Industry is feeling rather pleased with itself. This year's national conference in Birmingham boasts appearances by all three main party leaders, four Cabinet ministers, a European Commissioner, the leader of the Opposition and, perhaps, the next leader of the Opposition in the bouffant and dashing form of Michael Portillo.

Such a glittering array of speakers must surely bear testimony to the CBI's pulling power as a business organisation and its influence in the corridors of power. Perversely, this is far from being the case.

All politicians are pro-business now, or at least pretend to be, and CBI conferences have become anodyne, stage-managed affairs in which everyone agrees with everybody else on just about everything. Lord knows, there must be enough to argue with policy makers about, what with the euro, and the rising burden of tax and regulation, but somehow it all gets glossed over in mutual back slapping.

The day when the serving prime minister looks forward to an appearance before the CBI with trepidation rather than relish is the day when the CBI becomes a power in the land again. For the time being that day looks far distant.

Two decades ago Terry Beckett called for a bare-knuckle fight with Mrs Thatcher. These days, they don't even pretend to need kid gloves. What passes for debate at the CBI is timid chit-chat, and don't even bother to ask whether any serious policy comes out of it.

The fact is that the CBI's annual get together, like the party conferences and the TUC, has become one more staging post for the political caravan, one more opportunity for the ministerial soundbite. It is no accident that there are as many lobby correspondents in Birmingham this week as business editors. Perhaps the solution is to hold the event henceforth in the QE2 centre, across the square from the House of Commons, to save the speakers the round trip to Birmingham.

The bigger question is whether we any longer need the CBI. The one concrete goal it campaigns for - Britain's entry into the euro - is one not shared by around half of British businesses and could anyway just as easily be handled on an ad hoc basis. As for the rest, the CBI looks uncomfortably like a lobbying group without a cause.

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