Britain: Where Now? Tories' boardroom backers make no show of regret

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The Independent Online
REGRETS? 'Absolutely not.' 'Definitely not.' 'None at all.' 'None whatsoever.' 'Absolutely not at all.'

In March, 43 leading British businessmen wrote to the Times urging people to vote Conservative in the election. The past 12 years had seen a 'reappearance of a spirit of enterprise', 'dramatic improvements in productivity' and 'substantial inward investment'. 'Contrast this,' they said, 'with those awful days in the 1970s when overseas businessmen were genuinely sorry for you if you happened to be British]' Businessmen, they said, should support the party that had wrought this tremendous change, and the result would be growing prosperity in the 1990s.

The letter received considerable publicity and was brandished with pride by the Tory camp in the election. Seven months of decline and crisis later, and despite a conspicuous absence of growing prosperity, we could find none of the authors who felt that they had done the wrong thing.

They made an impressive collection: an earl, two peers, 13 knights, a banker, brewers, retailers, builders, hoteliers and manufacturers. Since March time has taken its toll: one has died, one has retired, two have been moved on. Last week two were unwell, two on holiday and several on business abroad. Some, such as Lord King (British Airways), who was swallowing another airline, were otherwise engaged. We spoke, in the end, to 15.

To say that they have no regrets is not to say that they all feel the Government had done a brilliant job since March. Lord Delfont (First Leisure) confessed: 'I am certainly disappointed . . . You have to put events in their worldwide setting, but there is no doubt some ghastly mistakes have been made.' And Sir John Cuckney (Royal Insurance) observed: 'Intention has been fine; execution has been bad.' John Bairstow (Queens Moat Houses) said the Government had been 'rightly criticised', and there had been 'an absence of strong economic policy'.

But the general tone was sympathetic. 'We all make brilliant graduates from the University of Retrospect,' said Thomas Farmer (Kwik-Fit). It was easy, with hindsight, to find fault. 'You would have had to have been a fortune teller to see what might go wrong,' said Sir Alex Alexander (Shearson Lehman).

Most of the Government's woes were caused by factors outside its control. 'The whole scene changed,' said David Kendall (Bunzl). Stanley Kalms (Dixons) was frank: 'It's easy to blame governments for these things, but you have to look at the broader reasons - German reunification, for example. Should something have been done earlier? In hindsight, perhaps, yes, but at the time it seemed we should sweat it out. I agreed with that. I felt the policy was right, up to the point where it was no longer the policy.'

In any case, they point out, the election was not a question of confidence in the Government but of whether you thought it was better than its opponents. As Sir Alex Alexander put it: 'Which horse do you back? That's what it was all about.'

Here there is broad agreement, summed up by John Neill (Unipart): 'The alternative would have been worse.' Sir Nigel Mobbs (Slough Estates) was more measured: 'I think they've been blown off course, but I suspect that any other government would have been blown off course, perhaps even sooner.' And Ian Hay Davison (Storehouse) was world-weary: 'Conservatives still remain the preferred choice, although the preference may not be as strong as it once was.'

It was clear that the Labour Party still carries a handicap. Neil Shaw (Tate & Lyle) explained: 'There were a lot of things in the Labour manifesto I liked, but there were also a lot of things I didn't like, particularly when I costed it. In the end, though, I just didn't have confidence in the leadership.' As for John Bairstow: 'My previous experience under a Labour government soured me for all time. People suffered so much under the Wilson and Callaghan governments. It is probably unfair.'

Just as confidently as they all insist that they made the right recommendation in March, our business leaders are now right behind the Government's new and radically different approach. Thomas Farmer made a virtue of this. It is not so long, he said, since we were all complaining about a government that was too stubborn to change its mind, so now we ought to be grateful. 'The fact that the people in government are willing to change is in some ways a strength.'

As one man our business leaders applaud lower interest rates, and most would like Norman Lamont to go further. 'Bigger interest rate cuts are necessary to change attitudes, even if the Treasury models warn against them,' said John Neill. Giles Shepard (Savoy Hotels) said it 'would be nice if they reduced interest rates a little further, although they certainly shouldn't go below 6 per cent.'

Michael Guthrie (Pavilion) was hoping for more cuts but prepared to wait: 'The Government is right, you have to be certain that the other indicators are firm.' Geoffrey Maitland Smith (Sears) thought they already were: 'The fall in demand for credit must be telling us that it is safe to reduce interest rates without the risk of inflation running out of control.'

Should the Government spend on infrastructure? 'Absolutely essential, said Sir John Cuckney. 'I believe we are neglecting our infrastructure.' And Sir Alex Alexander: 'Nothing would act more rapidly on unemployment; but it's necessary in any event - you don't need excuses for it.'

'Yes, but modestly,' said Stanley Kalms. 'It shouldn't become a cult.' Sir Nigel Mobbs echoed that: 'To spend for the sake of spending is not the answer.' And John Neill insisted that 'any increase in capital spending on infrastructure should be compensated by a reduction in the public sector pay bill, but not a pay freeze'.

As for any wider role for the Government in promoting recovery, there was caution, if not scepticism. Nobody wants to see it 'picking winners' again, and 'planning' remains taboo.

What the Government could do was to promote British business abroad more aggressively, as the French do, said Ian Hay Davison. And Neil Shaw stressed another point: 'A strategy for growth begins with training and education. If you look at Germany we're woefully behind here.'

Above all, and with complete unanimity, our letter-signers were certain that recovery really depended upon two things which the Government could not conjure up at the wave of a wand: confidence and leadership. 'People are very, very cautious; once they see something positive is being done by the Government they may feel a bit more secure and things could start to take off,' Thomas Farmer said. Was he talking about leadership? From this government? 'Well, perhaps we'll get it now.'

Neil Shaw put it another way: 'Confidence depends on faith in the leadership. There must be no more mistakes.' And John Neill concluded his recipe for recovery in words heavy with the disappointments of the past. 'Finally,' he said, 'the Government should provide leadership.'

(Photograph omitted)