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How the great and good of Britain’s boardrooms refused to back Labour

Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves hoped their charm offensive of corporate Britain would secure Labour the backing of UK plc
Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves launched a charm offensive on corporate Britain - Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

It was supposed to be the moment that Labour exorcised the ghost of Jeremy Corbyn – proof at last that it had secured the firm backing of UK plc to run the country.

“Labour has shown it has changed and wants to work with business to achieve the UK’s full economic potential,” an announcement declared on Tuesday, as the Opposition signalled support from more than 120 business leaders.

For anyone with even a passing interest in business, it promised to be a real marmalade-dropper in the run-up to next month’s snap general election.

If the Tories had surrendered the backing of industry, finance and commerce, and could no longer be trusted with the economy, then it represented a potentially decisive turning point in British politics.

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Signatories of the letter were said to include senior executives from the City, entrepreneurs and investors, as well as figures from the world of technology and leading retailers.

But had the great and the good of Britain’s boardrooms really thrown their weight behind a party that threatened economic ruin under Corbyn just five years ago with plans to expropriate corporate assets, renationalise vast swathes of the economy, and enforce a four-day week?

Rachel Reeves said she was 'really proud' of the support despite there being no FTSE chiefs on the list
Rachel Reeves said she was 'really proud' of the support despite there being no FTSE chiefs on the list - REUTERS/Maja Smiejkowska

Well no, they hadn’t. Instead, with barely a big-hitter to be found among a register of 121 names, one could question if there was a danger of demonstrating the precise opposite of what was intended, which is that big business had refused to back Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves.

Reeves said she was “really proud” of the support. However, critics were quick to point out that the list didn’t contain a single chief executive of a FTSE 100 company despite her “smoked salmon and scrambled eggs” charm offensive of corporate Britain.

The only senior figure from Britain’s blue-chip elite was Andrew Higginson, chairman of high street tracksuit and trainer emporium JD Sports.

Nor was there a single boss to be found from the FTSE 250, the second-tier of listed UK stocks that is far more representative of the British economy that Labour claims it will be a responsible steward of.

The majority of the signatories were small businesses, with 72 of the 121 boasting 50 employees or less. One was an ice cream parlour based in Surrey. There were also representatives from four trade associations, a diversity consultant, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. As for celebrity chef Tom Kerridge, one business figure asked: “Who cares what he thinks?”

“This is the result of years of lobbying so clearly nobody likes what they’re hearing,” a senior City source told The Telegraph. “That should be a big concern for Labour.”

It wasn’t just the roll call of unknowns that embarrassed the Opposition. Closer scrutiny of Labour’s prized UK backers reveals a ragtag group of names suggesting it was cobbled together by someone with little to no understanding of business at all, or in such haste that they didn’t have time to carry out some basic due diligence.

As such, within hours of the list appearing, it was already unravelling at alarming speed.

Even the “British” element seemed to be missing in some cases. There was Giles Slinger, director of Fledger, an artificial intelligence company, who appears to be based in the Netherlands, according to his LinkedIn page; and Richard Greer, chair of Asia Strategic Holdings, a Myanmar-focused investment house whose principal offices are in Singapore, Myanmar and Vietnam, according to its website.

Labour presumably might also want to revisit the inclusion of a former FCA chief who took part in a tax avoidance scheme. Charles Randell was forced to pay £114,000 plus interest to HMRC after it emerged that the former corporate lawyer was an investor in the controversial tax avoidance scheme Ingenious Film Partners 2.

Signatories included Charles Randel, who was an investor in a controversial tax avoidance scheme
Signatories included Charles Randell, who was an investor in a controversial tax avoidance scheme - REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Randell was later chair of the Financial Conduct Authority when it failed to “effectively supervise and regulate” London Capital and Finance, resulting in huge losses for investors. He later apologised “for the mistakes we made” which resulted in more than 11,000 people losing a total of £237m.

Others with a mixed CV include Rupert Keeley, a director of financial services company NewDay, which was censured by the Financial Ombudsman Service for lending money to problem gamblers and benefit claimants deemed unlikely to meet repayments.

Iceland boss Richard Walker also signed up, who notably switched his support to Labour earlier this year after ditching his ambition to become a Tory MP.

There will be questions asked too about the decision to allow several vocal Brexit opponents into the fold.

That includes Nic Laurens of tool supply company Severn Diamond, who has described Brexit as “a folly for a select rich few” and called Leave supporters “dumb Brexit b------s”, or Frank McKenna, chair of North West networking club Downtown in Business. In the wake of the referendum result, McKenna labelled Brexit “the con of the century’.

A number of Labour lobbyists also appear to have registered. Among them was Benny Higgins, former finance chief of Tesco bank who was hired by Sir Keir’s team last November – to spearhead a campaign aimed at wooing businesses no less.

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch said the list of names was proof that 'Labour is not a serious party'
Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch said the list of names was proof that 'Labour is not a serious party' - HOLLIE ADAMS/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The nobodies were matched only by the “has-beens”. Ridicule of the letter was led by Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who pointed out it had been “signed mainly by ‘former’ business people” – officials at Conservative Campaign headquarters counted nine in total. They include Karen Blackett, who was listed as UK president of ad giant WPP. However, representatives of the company got in touch to point out she had recently left.

Special opprobrium was reserved for ex-Heathrow boss John Holland-Kaye, who fell out spectacularly with leading airlines over landing charges, and infuriated customers after Britain’s biggest airport was plunged into chaos during the pandemic.

The trade union Unite was so incensed that it demanded Holland-Kaye be removed from the list over Heathrow’s use of controversial “fire and rehire” practices during his time in charge.

There was derision too for Andy Palmer, who oversaw a 98pc plunge in the share price of Aston Martin during his time as boss of the once-illustrious carmaker.

Badenoch said the charade was evidence that “Labour is not a serious party”, and on this showing, it may be hard for others to disagree.