Siemens and Microsoft are leading a last-minute drive to shore up corporate support for the CBI ahead of a key vote of confidence on Tuesday, after allegations of serious misconduct threw the UK business lobby group into crisis.
The German industrial conglomerate, which has a significant presence in the UK, is co-ordinating a letter, urging other members of the lobby group to endorse the organisation.
Signatories of the letter, seen by the Financial Times, include US tech group Microsoft, whose UK head Clare Barclay is currently on the CBI’s board, and Esso Petroleum, a British subsidiary of energy giant ExxonMobil. They are among about a dozen to have signed the letter, according to person familiar with the details.
The letter said the CBI had “recognised its failings and has a robust action plan in place to be delivered by a new leadership”. It added it was “essential that a refocused, effective CBI re-establishes its ties with government and provides the voice that British business needs”. Sky News first reported the Siemens’ initiative.
“We will vote to give the CBI a mandate to continue,” said Carl Ennis, chief executive of Siemens in the UK and Ireland. “We believe the UK needs an effective voice for businesses of all sizes and across different sectors.”
The CBI suspended virtually all activities in April as high-profile members quit the lobby group over allegations of serious misconduct, including two claims of rape reported by the Guardian newspaper, which prompted a police investigation.
On Tuesday, members will vote on whether to back the organisation after it laid out a plan to change its leadership, improve its culture and governance and pare back some of its lobbying activities to reduce duplication with specialist trade associations. Some critics questioned whether the reforms went far enough.
The CBI’s new director-general Rain Newton-Smith told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Sunday that the revelations had been “absolutely devastating”.
She added: “It’s a really nerve-racking time for us as an organisation, and I’m absolutely determined that we lead this programme of change so we can be that collective voice,” she said.
The departure of members such as Aviva, NatWest, John Lewis and Vodafone has left the CBI in financial peril and bosses told its near-300 staff on Thursday that they plan to slash the group’s wage bill by a third as part of wider cost-cutting.
Members said winning a vote of confidence alone would not be enough to save the CBI, which relies on access to government to influence policy on behalf of its members. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said in April there was “no point engaging with the CBI when their own members have deserted them in droves”.
A person at one large member that paused its association with the CBI said: “The key is government patronage: they are going to have to open up dialogue again or members will drift. They hold the key. Hunt probably holds its future in his hands.”
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow business secretary, held the door open to re-engaging with the CBI: “I do think this country needs a significant national business voice that encompasses all of the different parts of the economy.”
Members will be asked to vote on the motion: “Do the changes we have made − and the commitments we have set out − to reform our governance, culture, and purpose give you the confidence you need to support the CBI?”
People close to the CBI said the group had “positive conversations” with many members in private last week. “Our members are key to all we do — and we welcome their support,” it said in response to the Siemens initiative.