'Ridiculously reckless' Big Business must engage to minimise political risk

As the Prime Minister takes aim at capitalism, chief executives should play an active part in the debate to avoid another 'it'll never happen', Brexit-style slap in the face.

Gavin Devine: Brexit has shown up how feckless many businesses have been about political risk
Gavin Devine: Brexit has shown up how feckless many businesses have been about political risk

Business leaders are yet again facing an uncomfortable moment. Prime Minister Theresa May plans to reform capitalism to make it work better for the Average Joe, so the behaviour of executives is under renewed scrutiny. The revelation this week that FTSE100 bosses have seen their pay packets skyrocket has put them further under the microscope.
So far, the response from business has been muted. All too often this is the way that some companies deal with the political process: either by keeping their heads down or by treating Westminster, Holyrood and Brussels as sideshows that can be handled by government affairs staff, or maybe by the chairman. Too many chief executives then seem to be shocked by regulatory changes, failure to win government contracts, or, I don't know, decisions to leave the European Union.
Brexit has shown up how feckless, and at times ridiculously reckless, many businesses have been about political risk. The Government bizarrely asked companies not to intervene, but in truth few of them ever really planned to do so. Certainly the efforts of many firms were not in proportion to the threats they faced. This was not a one-off: the Scottish referendum was the same. We pay trade bodies to look after us, is the common refrain, and anyway it'll never happen. We are a Big Business.
We can only hope that the surprise of Brexit or the realisation that May really does plan to put fetters on companies will end this insouciant attitude to political risk. It seems clear the Prime Minister will advance a wide-ranging suite of proposals to alter and improve over the coming months. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Fat Cat story this week, it has given the Government new ammunition to use in this fight.
Businesses must accept that the spotlight will stay on them, and they can't hide from it. Who knows whether May and her closest advisers are channelling Joseph Chamberlain, or if they are morally outraged by the excesses of capitalism, or if they believe this is the best way to win seats in northern cities and suburbs. It doesn’t matter. Companies are in their crosshairs.
Chief executives are not controlling this debate – Downing Street is firmly in control – but they can and should be active participants in it. Their job is to explain to politicians, and most importantly to the public, what is good and what is bad in May's measures. They have to set out their own proposals. In short, they need to engage. And once they've got into the habit they should also take leading roles in ‎other debates that are critical to their businesses. That would be the sensible way for companies to deal with political risk.

Gavin Devine is COO of Porta Communications and managing partner of Newgate Communications

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