With the threat of internecine warfare over Europe brewing, the CBI is proving to be a much tougher posting than its ambitious young director general may have been expecting.
Try to imagine what it must be like running the Confederation of British Industry right now. First, you have to deal with a Labour government which is so keen to work closely with business that many of your members are in severe culture shock. Second, you have to sort out your relations with a Conservative party that seems to have totally lost touch with its natural constituencies. On top of which, you have to negotiate your way round a national issue of extreme political sensitivity where the views of your members are completely at odds with those of a number of leading newspapers - not to mention some public opinion. Then up pops a small but vocal minority to claim that the organisation itself has been hijacked by big multinationals. Suddenly the public arena, for so long a calm sea with clearly marked hazards which the CBI had patiently navigated, has become very rough water. Diplomacy, a bit of guile and a firm hand on the tiller are what's called for, and a few people are beginning to ask, has the current director general got what it takes?
'Yes' is the answer from most of the senior businessmen at the top of the CBI, who have formed a tight defensive circle around Adair Turner following the rows over Europe this winter. It is two and a bit years since the 42-year-old ex-McKinsey partner took over from Howard Davies as CBI director general and in that time, they point out, he has performed admirably at the employers' organisation: streamlining staff, reorganising the London head office, and sensitively negotiating the potential minefield of last year's general election. So who's complaining? The problem, it seems, is that Turner does not have quite the same mastery of the media as his predecessor, and now faces far tougher difficulties than confronted Davies. Then there is the problem of his manner. Too smooth, too arrogant, too ambitious, too cocky - Turner, a tall, slim, handsome man, has provoked a variety of views among those who have met him, not all complimentary. These would be minor quibbles in so able a manager, but with the row over the CBI's support for Britain's entry into a European currency unlikely to go away, the director general is going to need every last ounce of media savvy he can muster. Otherwise a healthy debate is going to be depicted as a cavernous split, and the organisation, and Turner, will get shredded.
Is this fair? Sitting at the conference table in his 10th floor Centre Point office, Turner appears anything but confident. After the rows at the CBI's annual conference in November, with Sir Stanley Kalms, chairman of Dixons, loudly proclaiming that the organisation is no longer representing its members' views properly, the previously plum job of director general has taken on a distinct tinge of after-you-Claude. Davies, safely ensconced at the new super-agency regulating Britain's financial affairs, could be forgiven for feeling rather pleased with himself these days. It was Davies, another ex-McKinsey man and CBI director general for just three years, who recommended his old friend for the post back in 1995. Looking at the problems Turner now faces, the favour could turn out to be something of a hospital pass.
So, given that Turner has spent most of his working life avoiding publicity at a notoriously tight-lipped management consultancy, it is perhaps not surprising that press interviews appear to make him rather uneasy. Perched on the edge of his seat, arms tightly crossed, a little frown playing over his neat, executive good looks, he seems uncertain how to approach our meeting. He looks at his watch. He defers to his press officer. He jiggles about a bit nervously. Does he still find dealing with the media difficult? It is not, he says after some thought, something that comes naturally to him. …