There’s nothing Paul Drechsler, the CBI president, likes more than a captive audience. Which makes the CBI’s annual conference his ideal day out. A chance to try out some Forrest Gump business insights, along with his rotary club MC routine, in his opening address. After urging business leaders to “eat, drink and sleep productivity” – no one needed any encouragement for the last part – Drechsler finally remembered the day wasn’t all about him. There were lots of exciting speakers, he added as an afterthought. And there was also the prime minister.
“It’s a pleasure to be here,” Theresa May said, listlessly. She sounded just as unenthusiastic about her attendance as Drechsler had. To be fair, there was nothing personal about this. She might be the CBI’s public enemy number one over her Brexit mess, but these days Theresa would almost always rather be somewhere else. Being prime minister was no longer any fun, with each day bringing further stress and misery. Last week it was Michael Fallon, Damian Green and half the cabinet; today it was Priti Patel, Boris Johnson and the other half of the cabinet. If she could walk, she would.
It was time to detach. To disassociate. Pretend she wasn’t there. Enter the Maybot, on reserve battery. She knew she had nothing to say and was intent on getting to the end as quickly as possible without making eye contact with anyone in the room. The government was committed to getting the best Brexit deal possible. Though what that might be was anyone’s guess.
Nor did she mention what was in the 58 sectoral impact assessments, because she hadn’t read them. Primarily because they didn’t exist. And if they did they would be just too depressing. Several audience members held their heads in despair. All they had wanted from the prime minister was some kind of certainty over Brexit, and that was the one thing she had been unable to give. The only promise she could make was that if there were to be a cliff-edge Brexit, she would willingly be the first person to walk over it – anything but more of this. It was leadership of a sort.
Tory leaders are used to standing ovations at the CBI; the Maybot got a grudging 10 seconds of half-hearted applause. Nor did things improve when the prime minister was invited to answer questions. She shrugged off the Paradise Papers, saying nobody had done more to make people pay tax except the people who had, and she added to her government’s discomfort over claims of sexual harassment in her own party by implying there was more going on that the media hadn’t heard about. And, no, she couldn’t confirm what she knew and when. She might have been reading out her own suicide note.
Drechsler bounced back on stage, anxious to relieve the melancholia that had descended on the conference. Back to me, he declared. Me, me, me. And Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy was going to cheer everyone up. “Oh yes,” Drechsler whooped. “The Labour leader is in the house!” Everything was going to be fine after all.
“Thank you, thank you so much for coming,” Drechsler simpered. He knew it was taking up a lot of Jeremy’s time to make it to the conference two years in a row, but he couldn’t be more grateful. He stopped just short of declaring Corbyn as the prime minister in waiting, the one person capable of saving Britain from years of Brexit recession, but his welcome could hardly have been more effusive. For the first time in months, Drechsler had found someone he would rather talk about than himself.
Corbyn didn’t bat an eyelid. A year ago, the Labour leader would have dismissed the idea of being a poster boy for big business as a surreal fantasy, but now he takes it in his stride. As does the CBI. They might still twitch a bit nervously when he talks about renationalisation, but pretty much anything else goes. Reassure us over Brexit, they pleaded. Jeremy was only too happy to oblige. He would give them whatever Brexit they wanted.
“Like you,” he said, “I want the certainty of the customs union and the single market.” The CBI purred. They hadn’t felt so loved in months. “Like you,” he repeated, unable to resist tickling them again. The purrs turned to low groans of ecstasy. They didn’t even turn a hair when he suggested the Queen should apologise for investing in tax avoidance schemes. Now they came to think about it, he did have a point. It was the CBI, Jim. But not as we know it.
John Crace’s new book, I, Maybot, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy for £6.99, saving £3, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99
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