Some of Britain’s biggest companies are this weekend scrambling to fill the void left by the crisis at the CBI as they consider backing a new body being set up after talks with Conservative and Labour officials.
Sky News has learnt that businesses from across a range of sectors including banking, insurance, retail and telecoms have been contacted about the launch of BizUK.
The organisation, which is being assembled by WPI Strategy, a leading public affairs firm, will not seek to replace the CBI directly but will be a temporary body that will try to help private sector chiefs influence the main political parties’ manifestoes with a general election potentially only 18 months away.
A letter sent on Friday by Nick Faith, WPI’s director, to FTSE-100 companies and seen by Sky News, said BizUK would “support the representation of business to the main political parties in this critical pre-election period”.
He wrote: “This is being set up in light of the issues currently affecting the CBI, which while hopefully temporary, do mean there is an acknowledged lack of representation on crucial national policy issues for at least the period towards the next election.
“It is clear that businesses operating in the UK need an independent, cross-sector organisation which can ensure they can continue to meet and work constructively with political decision-makers.”
Mr Faith, who declined to comment to Sky News, said in the letter that WPI had “held recent, encouraging discussions with both the Government and Opposition parties” about the initiative.
He insisted: “To be clear from the outset, we are not looking to replace the CBI.
“We are not a trade body.
“Instead BizUK will be a temporary, time-limited initiative, focused on helping businesses communicate new thinking ahead of the next general election.”
Mr Faith said its work would focus on four core areas: skills and productivity; trade and investment; science and technology; and energy security and decarbonisation.
He added that BizUK’s membership would be “limited in number”, although he did not specify how many companies had been invited to join.
Its intention will be to produce four main reports that will enable BizUK “to advocate clear and coherent policy positions that best represent its members’ views”.
“BizUK would work closely with decision makers right across the political spectrum to ensure the findings from our workstreams are communicated ahead of the next general election.”
He said that the new organisation’s members would be publicly disclosed companies and would – unlike the CBI’s fee structure – all pay the same membership cost.
WPI was the architect of the Covid Recovery Commission, a cross-sector liaison group which worked to influence post-pandemic economic policy.
The rapid establishment of a heavyweight new business forum focused on liaising with government could represent a hammer blow to the CBI, which said after an emergency board meeting on Friday that it would suspend its core operations until June.
It then plans to hold an extraordinary general meeting of members to allow them to vote on a way forward for the UK’s biggest business lobbying group, which has been brought to the brink of collapse by its handling of a series of sexual abuse scandals.
Last week, the CBI fired its director-general, Tony Danker, saying he had lost the confidence of its board after a string of allegations about his personal conduct.
He accused the group of “throwing me under a bus”.
The CBI appointed Rain Newton-Smith – until recently its chief economist – as Mr Danker’s successor, but although she is regarded as capable, her appointment was roundly criticised for failing to embrace the kind of reform that members believe the CBI requires.
On Friday, companies including Aviva, BMW, John Lewis Partnership and NatWest Group said they were terminating their membership in protest at the CBI’s culture and mishandling of the scandal.
One boss said rejoining the CBI would only be conceivable if it recruited an outsider as its director-general and replaced Brian McBride, its president.
The organisation, which was established by Royal Charter in 1965, has 190,000 members, who until yesterday included the majority of Britain’s best-known companies.
The Guardian reported on Friday that a second former female CBI employee had alleged that she was raped by a colleague during her time at the lobbying group.
“We have listened carefully to what our colleagues, members and stakeholders have said over recent days and weeks,” the CBI board said.
“We have heard loud and clear a demand for far-reaching change.
“We want to properly understand from our colleagues, members, experts and stakeholders how they envisage our future role and purpose.
“As a result, we have taken the difficult but necessary decision to suspend all policy and membership activity until an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) in June.
“At the EGM we will put forward proposals for a refocused CBI to our membership for them to decide on the future role and purpose of the organisation.
“This work and the cultural reform will be the entire and urgent focus of the organisation over the coming weeks.”