To continue the tradition of Dartmouth House being a centre of excellence in open dialogue and respect for all opinions, we held a City Lunch Series in Spring 2010 taking the theme of the General Election.
The first lunch was held with Lord Mandelson, Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, on 24 February. Lord Mandelson appeared relaxed as he answered the questions put to him by Lord Watson on such topics as the European Union, Northern Ireland, the economy and the role of the banks and even joked with our guests that “forces of darkness do not surround the Prime Minister as I surround the Prime Minister”.
Lord Mandelson spoke about his time at the European Commission when, after brushing up on his French, he was pleasantly surprised on arrival in Brussels, to find that English is the lingua franca of the Commission. He answered the question “Why is the British public still so ill at ease with the European Union” by say that it wasn’t exclusively a British situation but that the public in European countries felt the same but that he also felt it was subsiding. He then went on to answer questions on Northern Ireland saying that the Irish people wanted peace and that they were very strong and would not let the recent bombings affect the peace. On the question of foreign takeovers of British Companies, Lord Mandelson said, “We want foreign investment in Great Britain”. He added the sentiment that we wanted consistent investment and would not encourage quick profit taking. He commented that the banks should be more accountable for their actions and be more prudent in their lending.
In a light hearted conclusion to the Q&A session Lord Mandelson said, yes he could see a life after politics but was in no hurry to find out what it was. He emphasised how much he enjoyed politics and in particular being in government. He explained being in government is a very stressful business where you seem to spend a lot of time defending yourself to journalists who have already written their own stories about you. Yes, politicians are "different" characters but are not as bad as they are portrayed in the press.
Lord Watson and Lord Mandelson had an easy rapport and Lord Mandelson laughed about how disappointed he was that Lord Hunt was not able to hear him speak as he was in New Zealand!
Our second lunch with Vince Cable MP, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Shadow Chancellor was held on 11 March. Vince has become one of the most important commentators on the recession and is widely acknowledged as being a voice of reason. The guests were fascinated to hear his views on the current economic climate. He warned us that it could take ten years to recover from the recession, which is longer than the life of the next parliament. Whoever gets into government this year will be expected to turn the country around in four years, this will be almost impossible to do. The expectation of government is not realistic in economic terms. The long working relationship Lord Watson and Vince Cable was again evident as Lord Watson posed questions on issues including the recession, the role of banks, the economy in general, and how the Liberal Democrats would influence a hung parliament.
Vince said that credit is central to business, yet bank lending to business, fell last year. The tax payer invested in the banks to save our economy and enable them to lend. He insisted that he did not believe that money be handed out to all-comers. But unless good, viable companies can get credit, the recession and job losses will continue. The semi-nationalised banks have a legal as well as commercial obligation to help support the recovery of the British economy. The problem is the banks, including the semi-nationalised ones, are under pressure to boost their share prices. In the case of RBS and Lloyds the reason is that the Government wants to sell off its shares quickly.
He concluded by saying that of course the Liberal Democrats would like the opportunity to influence a hung parliament. He said one of the reasons they were in politics was to fight for the opportunity to govern.
Our third lunch in the series was with Andrew Mitchell MP, Conservative Shadow Secretary for International Development and a governor of the ESU. Andrew began by speaking to our guests on how the Conservative Party are preparing for the election. He stated his message clearly that, in the Conservatives view, there was a clear choice, five more years of Gordon Brown or a chance of change. He went on to say that his role in International Development was one of the most interesting he’d ever had. He said it is our duty to make the world a safer place through wealth creation and by helping to stop conflict.
On the question of whether the Conservative Party had done enough to change their image he felt sure they had. He said the Conservatives were open to everyone in Great Britain and that they would do everything they could in the next 50 days to avoid a hung parliament. He light-heartedly recounted an email from a member of the public asking him that as he had been a banker and is now a politician was he planning to become an estate agent!
Our Director-General Mike Lake chaired the Q&A session posing a wide variety of questions on the image of the Conservatives, the possibility of a hung parliament, how the Conservatives would help the country recover from his economic crisis. He also put questions to Andrew on how the Conservatives would work with the unions, biomedical research and how they proposed to invest in international development at a time when our own country needs investment.
Andrew answered the questions by outlining Conservative proposals for hospital twinning to encourage British doctors to work overseas and to receive accreditation for their work. This would help international development in less advantaged countries. He spoke of international organisations, such as the Red Cross, doing a brilliant job in helping poorer countries to help themselves. Aid is a means to an end not an end in itself. We should encourage education in the legal system, property rights and budget support to enable everyone to get the best from the aid they are given. He discussed the role of the English language to use English as a global commodity bringing benefit to developing relationships.
Andrew said that the Conservatives had no plans to break the unions but to work with them. In answering the question what role would the armed forces play with the new national Security Council, he said that a definite review could only be carried out if the Conservatives won the election. However, they did feel strongly that our armed forces should be looked after and if the worst happened we must look after their families. He also said that the NHS was fundamental to the fabric of Great Britain, yes it could do better and the Conservatives would try to do that.
It was clear that all our guests enjoyed the magnificent opportunity of sharing such intimate lunches with all three of our speakers and the ESU is very grateful to them for giving us their valuable time.
All proceeds from the lunches will go to ESU Education Programmes.