Bosses lined up for new May business forum

Bosses lined up for new May business forum
Bosses lined up for new May business forum

Bosses from companies including BT Group, ITV and Rolls-Royce Holdings are being lined up by Theresa May's business envoy to join a new forum that will seek to thaw previously frosty relations between Downing Street and the private sector.

Sky News can reveal details of the plans being drawn up by William Vereker, the former City banker who was recruited by the Prime Minister during the summer to lead Number Ten's engagement with business.

Under the proposals, which are expected to be finalised in the coming weeks, Mrs May and senior Cabinet colleagues including Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, will meet with a handful of sector-specific groups twice a year to discuss concerns and issues affecting their industries.

These will include panels focused on banking, financial and professional services; industrials and manufacturing; technology, media and telecoms; a group comprising representatives of start-ups and other entrepreneurs; and healthcare and retail.

Mr Vereker intends to appoint two co-chairs to each group, with a preference that one of those roles should be held by a woman.

That collection of co-chairs will also meet the PM on a biannual basis to discuss issues facing the broader economy and private sector.

If adopted, the new template for engagement would commit Mrs May to as many as a dozen formal meetings with business leaders each year, underlining the extent to which she has been persuaded that she needs bosses' support for her Brexit strategy and domestic policy agenda.

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Sources said that the co-chairs of the TMT group would be Jan du Plessis, the chairman of BT Group, and Carolyn McCall, chief executive of ITV.

Paul Manduca, the Prudential chairman, would be one of the co-chairs of the financial services group, alongside Baroness Vadera, the former Labour minister who chairs Santander UK.

Dave Lewis, the chief executive of Tesco, and Emma Walmsley, GlaxoSmithKline's chief executive, are also thought likely to be involved.

Emma Jones, the founder of start-up Enterprise Nation, will co-chair the entrepreneurs group.

The manufacturing panel is expected to be jointly chaired by two men: Sir Roger Carr, chairman of BAE Systems, and Sir Ian Davis, chairman of Rolls-Royce Holdings, underlining the dearth of senior women in the industry.

One person close to the proposed structure cautioned that some of the details could still change during the coming weeks.

Since entering Downing Street in 2016, Mrs May had largely kept her distance from big business, marking a contrast with the approach of her predecessor, David Cameron.

Mrs May's meetings with corporate leaders have until recently been held on an ad hoc basis, with some bosses complaining that despite their status as major employers and taxpayers, their views were being largely ignored.

However, Mr Vereker's arrival has heralded a significant shift in tone, highlighting Mrs May's need to secure widespread endorsement for her Chequers plan and broader Brexit strategy.

A large number of companies, including Airbus, AstraZeneca and BMW, have warned that a no-deal Brexit or prolonged uncertainty over the terms of the UK's EU departure are forcing them to slow or halt investment in their British operations.

In the aftermath of last month's EU summit, Mrs May addressed a conference call of UK company bosses in which she urged them to encourage their European suppliers to lobby their own governments in favour of a Brexit deal.

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On Wednesday, the PM and Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, met roughly 150 business leaders in Central London to talk about the Budget and the performance of the UK economy.

None of those involved in the new business engagement plans would comment on Thursday.

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