Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has raised the prospect of senior business figures giving up the boardroom and joining the Foreign Office in the service of their country. When I asked a former senior diplomat, with an alphabet of letters after his name, what he made of this proposal he slapped his hands on his head and screamed.
It wasn’t just that Foreign Office officials loathe the idea of corporate outsiders upending their carefully maintained hierarchy, it’s that Hunt's proposals aren't new. “New Labour had this idea in their '97 manifesto,” said my diplomatic contact, “but we watered it down to the point where nothing really came of it.” However, governments of all stripes have ennobled captains of industry and dropped them into ministerial office.
In March 2014 I accompanied Ian Livingston, who left his role as head of BT to become a trade minister, on an export-boosting mission to central and eastern Europe. Livingston was due to give a press conference on the health of SME trade to, we assumed, a local radio station and a couple of bloggers in the Czech city of Brno.
As it happened, Russia invaded Ukraine that afternoon and what seemed like half of Eastern Europe’s journalists descended on the hotel foyer, scrambling to talk to the British government minister. Livingston, who had only been in the role a few weeks, was absolutely brilliant. With calm authority he confronted the scrum of cameras and lights and relayed the Foreign Office lines that had just come through. He even took questions. It was a masterclass, and a feat that would have seen some seasoned politicians go to pieces.
Incidentally, critics of Hunt’s proposals claim business chiefs will never take the pay cut. This may be true. Livingston held the role for under two years before having his head turned by Man Group, one of the world’s biggest hedge funds. The hedgie’s gain is Her Majesty’s Government’s loss.
Nation of Health Service
By far the most consequential news to emerge from the Budget was the revelation, identified by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that by 2023/24 nearly 40 per cent of all public service spending will be consumed by the NHS. Soon, then, the British state will be primarily a vehicle for the delivery of healthcare – with dwindling room for anything else. It’s hard to escape the comparison with Voltaire’s observation that “where some states possess an army, the Prussian army possesses a state.”
Ad dish best served cold
One can imagine a slight grin spreading across Sir Martin Sorrell’s face when WPP announced a ropey third quarter this week. Having been ousted, the man who founded the world’s biggest ad agency is now busy launching his new venture, S4. Asked yesterday by Gideon Spanier whether he wants revenge on his former company, Sorrell replied “the best form of revenge would be building a significant, successful, new-era, new-approach agency.” That’s a yes, then.
Check your privilege
When Lord Hain stood up in the Lords and revealed the allegations against Philip Green, he failed to declare that he is a paid adviser to the law firm – Gordon Dadds – that acted for the Telegraph in their bid to overturn the reporting restrictions. Hain has since said he was unaware of the firm’s involvement, but had he glanced at the judgement before using parliamentary privilege to obliterate it, he would have known full well of his employer’s role in the case.
As the Lord Speaker made clear this week, peers should act with extreme care when using their privilege to intervene in the decisions of the judiciary. Hain’s apparent failure to even look at the cover page of the judgement he was set on upending would appear to be the opposite of careful. Hain was appointed by Gordon Dadds “to act as the firm’s global and government adviser” and to “play an active role in expanding Gordon Dadds’ international connections.” Let’s hope he has a keener eye for the details when he’s providing those services.