Hats off to Rona Fairhead, the former Financial Times executive who will succeed Lord Patten as chairman of the BBC Trust. It requires a brave spirit to take on this poisonously politicised role — and Fairhead starts with the disadvantage that everyone thinks they know the roll call of candidates who might have been preferred but declined to apply, including her own former boss Dame Marjorie Scardino, for whose job as head of Pearson, the FT’s parent, Fairhead was passed over last year. But a mole tells me she’s ‘as steely as she’ll need to be’; and leading ladies of the non-executive circuit (she’s on the boards of HSBC and PepsiCo) are also full of praise, though one says: ‘She must like stress.’
Meanwhile, a subplot of this selection was the treatment of current BBC Trust member Nick Prettejohn, a respected City figure who was named in July as the shortlist’s last man standing — the Prime Minister having let it be known he would prefer a woman to win. Prettejohn’s candidacy was torpedoed by a Mail on Sunday article headed ‘Osborne adviser… linked to far-right group’ over a picture of him, as a Balliol undergraduate in 1980, attending an event of the Oxford University Monday Club (then a Tory party offshoot) at which attendees made Nazi salutes and shouted ‘Sieg Heil’. Though ‘there’s no suggestion Prettejohn engaged in or condoned’ these drunken antics, said the Mail, ‘political opponents’ claim Monday Club support later helped him win the Oxford Union presidency.
I have a close view of Prettejohn (who is a director of Lloyds and chair of its Scottish Widows arm) as a governor of the Royal Northern College of Music, which he also chairs. He is thoughtful but decisive, combining business rigour with creative empathy — attributes ideal for the BBC. His politics seem liberal-minded but are not strongly expressed; his ‘Osborne adviser’ role, on a City panel, was not a close one. He is an able man with an appetite for public service, and he should have a couple of big jobs ahead of him — if his profile has not been blighted for ever. I’m wondering what machination of Downing Street and BBC politics, combined with old Oxford grudges, required him to be quite so brutally knocked out.
Mothers of three
I notice that when Paddy Power was offering 6-4 on Prettejohn for the BBC, it also had Rona Fairhead at 11-10 to succeed Sir David Walker in the Barclays chair at the end of the year. That’s a race in which, for historic personal reasons, this column takes an obsessive interest each time it comes round. My own odds for the job must now be very long, and it was here you read the suggestion that my former employer should shake the tree next time by picking an all-women shortlist, preferably ‘no-nonsense mothers of three’. That happens to be a precise description of Rona Fairhead, who has already been a runner-up (to Lord Blackwell) for the Lloyds chairmanship. But she surely can’t preside over the Beeb and Barclays at the same time; the bank’s deputy chairman, CBI president Sir Mike Rake, has ruled himself out; and my previous tip Dame Alison Carnwath has yet to declare. So come on, girls, pick up the phone to the headhunters: this prize is still for the taking.
Another rumoured runner in the Barclays stakes is Airports Commission chairman Sir Howard Davies — a stayer whose CV includes a stint at the Bank of England, and who recovered from an awkward fall in 2011 when he resigned as director of the LSE over its receipt of Gaddafi funding. Davies has placed himself in another dangerous position by ruling out ‘Boris Island’, the Thames Estuary airport espoused by the mayor of London as an alternative to expansion at Heathrow. I say ‘dangerous’ because Boris Johnson is not a man who likes to be upstaged — especially when he has the scent of political advancement in his nostrils. Davies should brace himself for repeated bashings, for which the first mayoral response — ‘In one myopic stroke the Airports Commission has set the debate back by half a century’ — was just a warm-up.
I have never thought Boris Island was as bonkers as Davies makes it sound, expensive though it would certainly be. The idea has been on and off Whitehall drawing boards since the 1960s — and Douglas Oakervee, the engineer who moved islands to create Hong Kong’s superb Chek Lap Kok airport, once said the Thames project would be ‘easier to build’. But I sometimes wonder whether Boris himself really meant it, or was simply deploying the technique that made him such a successful editor of this paper. One of my contributions during his tenure was a contrarian cover essay about China, which briefly attracted wide attention. It was commissioned by a short, cheery phone call: ‘Look, old bean, everyone’s saying China’s going to be a great world power — why don’t we just say exactly the opposite?’
On my way home from France at last, having decided not to bother trying to gatecrash the Parti Socialiste’s ‘summer school’ at La Rochelle — which had heavy security this year to keep protesters out and warring leftist factions apart. The business-friendlier tone of the new, rebel-free cabinet assembled by President Hollande represents a last hope of resuscitation for his failing regime, but don’t hold your breath. Meanwhile, after a month of barbs from me, what do the French think of us? They seem puzzled by the fact that the UK economy has created a million new jobs while their own has destroyed 500,000; much is made of our penchant for zero-hour contracts, and the ‘purge violente’ which supposedly preceded recovery. France is a country of marvellous small businesses — bakers, hoteliers, craftsmen of all kinds — and, malgré tout, some pretty impressive big ones, yet its leaders seem blind to the fact that salvation lies in nourishing a culture of entrepreneurship.