With every sing-song, Boris Johnson's reputation with City bosses sinks further

London's business chiefs see beleaguered British PM and are nostalgic for an earlier leader

Talk is swirling around the City of London about Boris Johnson and who business chiefs would prefer in his role as prime minister. AFP
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Several times in the past few weeks, I’ve heard senior City figures expressing nostalgia for Tony Blair. Britain, they maintain, would be much better off if he was in charge.

Remarkable. Instinctive Conservatives, certainly where low taxation and minimal state machinery are concerned, wishing for a Labour Prime Minister. It says much about how low Boris Johnson has sunk that such thoughts are openly aired.

They’ve turned their backs on him. Not that the City was much enamoured with Johnson’s ideology in the first place. The Square Mile is heavily Remain. That, though, is not the issue — Brexit is done, it’s over as far as a City that prides itself on staying ahead and looking to the future is concerned.

No, this is more about Johnson the person.

This week, Mr Johnson’s attempt at a “reset” saw his new head of communications give an interview in which he described his boss as “not a complete clown”. As Guto Harri disclosed to a Welsh language blog, when Mr Johnson offered him the job at the weekend, the Prime Minister sang the lyrics to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

Mr Johnson quickly then engaged in a reshuffle of sorts, including moving close henchman Jacob Rees-Mogg to become Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities. This, while the cross-party Public Accounts Committee was releasing a report saying that so far, the only impact of Brexit was negative, entailing more paperwork for businesses and delayed supply lines.

One City supporter of Mr Johnson soon broke cover to say “enough”. John Armitage, co-founder of the Egerton Capital hedge fund, has donated £3.1 million to the Tories over the years, £500,000 since Johnson became PM. He usually eschews all publicity, but was so frustrated that he spoke to the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg.

Magnates such as Mr Armitage are people who take themselves and their brands, their reputations and by extension those of their stakeholders, extremely seriously. Mr Johnson would not last any time at all working for them — it’s no coincidence that his only experience of attempting to enter their world, for a management consultancy, was confined to all of one week.

They would not give house room to someone who shows such a contemptuous disregard for the rules, who lies and dissembles with ease, who does not attend to detail and does not prepare. Mr Johnson’s apparent attempt to paper over the divide in his speech to the recent CBI annual conference of industry chiefs, complete with his comments about taking his family to a Peppa Pig theme park and how the children’s cartoon character represented all that was best about British creativity, only served to underline the yawning chasm between him and the business elite.

That embarrassment, and it was a shambolic performance even by Johnson’s low bar, now seems like an age ago. Since then, we’ve had a slew of allegations concerning Downing Street’s defiance of the lockdown regulations followed by his inability to give clear, honest answers (it has not gone unnoticed that when he was found to have defied lockdown to visit Wimbledon for the tennis finals, Sir Antonio Horta-Osorio, the Credit Suisse chairman and former Lloyds Bank CEO, was immediately forced to resign). This, while the row about who paid for the wallpaper in the Downing Street, again accompanied by fudge, rumbled on. There was his desperate, ill-judged jibe at Sir Keir Starmer over the failure to prosecute paedophile Jimmy Savile and Johnson’s refusal to apologise.

We can laugh, but Johnson and his administration is no laughing matter

For his part, Mr Armitage intends to stay as a member of the Conservative Party, although he let it be known that he had made donations, albeit for much smaller sums, in the past year to Labour.

The response of a Conservative spokesman was that the government remained “fully focused on delivering for the British people”, but did not seek to build bridges by engaging with his critique.

It was a typical platitude of the sort that Johnson and his colleagues constantly parrot. Theirs is a government that deals in slogans, not deeds.

This causes profound despair in the City. What detains the heavyweight corporate community is the sense of drift, the lack of grip. Especially alarming is the UK’s declining presence on the world stage. That’s why they cite Blair. The former Labour leader carried, and still carries, global weight.

City economists and analysts repeatedly point out encroaching storm clouds bringing soaring costs, supply chain difficulties, energy insecurity. Inflation is digging in across the world, interest rates are climbing, the flow of easy money from governments’ responses to the 2008 near-meltdown is ending. Meanwhile, the crisis over Ukraine continues.

This is what Mr Armitage meant when he said he admired politicians on the left and right and said current global challenges to the West required “very serious, engaged politicians with a sense of purpose”.

Mr Johnson, the City has determined, is not among them.

Published: February 09, 2022, 1:44 PM
Updated: February 17, 2022, 8:33 AM