Johnson set to axe network of UK business councils

Boris Johnson

Dozens of business leaders could be forced to relinquish their roles as advisers to the prime minister as part of a shake-up of Boris Johnson’s engagements with industry bosses.

It is understood that Downing Street officials are keen to overhaul the network of five business councils set up in November 2018 by Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.

Although Mr Johnson held one meeting last October with the council co-chairs – including the technology entrepreneur Brent Hoberman, Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis and Sir Ian Davis, the Rolls Royce Holdings chairman – City sources said on Thursday that there had been no attempt to reactivate the network since December’s general election.

It remained possible but unlikely, they said, that the existing structure would remain in place.

Business chiefs believe the PM is likely to consider creating a single new committee of business advisers in the coming months, although they predicted that the short-lived structure created by Mrs May was destined to be scrapped.

“We haven’t heard anything since the election,” one member said on Thursday.

The quintet of business councils were established along industry lines, including consumer, retail and life sciences; financial and professional services; and industrial, infrastructure and manufacturing.

Officials are understood to have felt that the system was unwieldy and that many of the issues addressed by the councils were often duplicated by their peers.

The chief executives of companies including GlaxoSmithKline, London Stock Exchange Group and Whitbread were among those involved, while the chairmen of BAE Systems, Deloitte UK and Land Securities were also members.

One source suggested that if Number 10 did establish a new advisory committee, Downing Street would seek to appoint an equal number of male and female members.

A Downing Street spokesperson said: “The prime minister and his business team are refreshing how best to engage with businesses to ensure Britain is the number one country in the world to start, grow and run a business.

“The prime minister remains committed to closely working with industry and future plans will be set out in due course.”

A Westminster source said that under the terms of reference agreed when the business councils were launched its members were appointed until 31 December 2019.

The insider added that many of the councils’ initiatives had been acted upon, including a new rail route between Manchester and Leeds to boost regional growth, and a new immigration visa to enable international students to work in the UK for two-years after graduation.

Legislation to accelerate the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband across the UK was also among the initiatives proposed by the councils, according to the source.

An overhaul of Mr Johnson’s engagement with business leaders nevertheless comes at a sensitive time, with relations between Downing Street and business groups – particularly the CBI – perceived to be under strain.

Dominic Cummings, the PM’s chief aide, has repeatedly criticised the CBI’s stance in the period since the Brexit referendum.

At Mr Johnson’s first post-Brexit speech on trade, John Allan, the CBI president, was in attendance – but Downing Street pointedly insisted that he had been invited in his capacity as chairman of Tesco.

The PM said recently that people had supported Brexit “despite everything they were told by the CBI and the BBC”.

One insider said the state of the relationship between the CBI and Number 10 would be discernible by the presence, or absence, of the business group’s president or director-general on any new liaison group established under Mr Johnson.

When Mr Johnson became Conservative leader, he drafted in the former Sky executive Andrew Griffith as his chief business adviser.

Mr Griffith won a safe Tory seat at December’s election, and his responsibilities have partly been assumed by Sir Edward Lister, one of Mr Johnson’s deputy mayors while he was mayor of London.

Among the key priorities for the business community in 2020 are helping to shape the terms of the UK’s future trade relationships with the EU and the rest of the world.

One FTSE-100 boss said that if a new business advisory committee was not set up by the PM, it would risk diluting the voice of business within Number 10.