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Hunt's hustlers' network grows

SOLOMON HUGHES takes a look at the history of the business ambassadors set up under David Cameron, as Jeremy Hunt prepares a similar scheme to put his hand-picked spivs in the place of actual diplomats

NEW Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt says he will “broaden the pool of talent we tap into for our ambassadors” by getting “businesspeople” into “key ambassadorial posts.” What could possibly go wrong with Hunt’s plan to hire ambassadors from “outside the Civil Service”?

Well the government already did a dry run for this by hiring a bunch of “business ambassadors,” and it looks pretty bad.

They are sort of junior ambassadors, rather than the full ambassadors in Hunt’s new plan. They are members of the business ambassador Network, a group of government-appointed businesspeople who lead trade delegations, have “1-2-1 meetings with senior government ministers” and host “high-level incoming visitors.” If Hunt’s new business ambassadors are anything like the old ones, we are in trouble.

David Cameron made Lady Barbara Judge a business ambassador in 2016, a post she still holds. Judge was chair of business lobby group the Institute of Directors until this March, when she had to resign after an investigation accused her of using racist and sexist language and bullying. In a recorded conversation, Judge complained about her staff, saying, “The problem is we have one black and we have one pregnant woman, and that is the worst combination we could possibly have. No, two blacks and one pregnant woman. I couldn’t believe it!” Judge said she rejected the allegations, but resigned from the Institute of Directors job. Is this the kind of smooth talker we want as a British diplomat?

Judge was forced out of the Institute of Directors after she was made “business ambassador,” but her business past already included scandal. She served on the board of a US mining firm, Massey Energy, which had a terrible safety record culminating in a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. At the very beginning of her career Judge had to pay $51,000 (£39,000) to settle a lawsuit accusing her of putting “improper pressure on regulators” to help a financier who served four years in prison for a massive financial fraud.

Cameron made Ayman Asfari, the boss of oil services firm Petrofac, a business ambassador in 2014, a post he still holds. In 2017 Serious Fraud Office investigators arrested Asfari as part of an inquiry into a massive international oilfield bribery scheme.

Asfari was questioned under caution. He has not been charged but the investigation into Petrofac continues. Top staff of Unaoil, the consultancy at the centre of the bribe investigation that worked for Petrofac and other firms, have been charged.

As well as accusations of wrongdoing, these business ambassadors share strong links to the Tory Party.

Barbara Judge’s husband (who died last year) was Conservative Party director-general, although he later split from the party. Ayman Asfari has given the Tories over £600,000.

Many other business ambassadors have strong Tory links.
Anya Hindmarch, the handbag designer who also helps organise the Conservative fundraising “Black & White Ball,” is a business ambassador. So is Archie Norman, a Lazards banker and former Tory MP. So is Tim Wates. His construction firm, Wates Group, has given £450,000 to the Conservatives. So is former Thatcher adviser Lord Powell. So is Ruby McGregor-Smith, who used to run privatisation company Mitie. She now sits as a Conservative in the House of Lords. So is Lucian Grainge, boss of Universal Music: in 2010 his firm gave the Tories £80,000.

Rupert Soames, chief executive of privatisation specialist Serco, is another business ambassador with strong Tory connections. Soames is brother of longstanding Tory MP Nicholas Soames — indeed critics charge Rupert was appointed to the Serco job precisely because of his political links, as Serco was going to have trouble getting government contracts after the firm was found faking work on their public-sector contract tagging criminals.

Business interests already distort British foreign policy. Looking at the business ambassadors, the interests of privatisation, banking and the arms trade are also strong. Along with Serco’s Rupert Soames, Paul Walsh, chairman of Compass Group – the hospital and school cleaning and catering giant – is a business ambassador.

For banking, Douglas Flint, former group chairman of HSBC, is a business ambassador. In 2012, when he ran HSBC, the bank was fined a massive $1.9bn (£1.2bn) by US authorities after a US Senate investigation said the bank had been a conduit for “drug kingpins and rogue nations.” Despite HSBC’s many fines, Flint lobbied hard for less government regulation of banks.

Robin Southwell, a former BAE systems executive who now leads arms and aerospace lobby group ADS (it stands for Aerospace, Defence, Security) and Sir Richard “Dick” Olver, former BAE Systems chairman, are both business ambassadors. Business ambassador Lord Charles Powell is also a BAE adviser — as as if BAE didn’t influence our foreign policy too much anyway.

So if the business ambassadors are any guide to the kind of businesspeople Jeremy Hunt will want to hire as full ambassadors, we can expect a load of Tory donors and executives from arms firms and banks mired in various scandals, or the kind of businesspeople that get arrested for fraud or leave their jobs after accusations of racism.

Solomon Hughes writes every Friday in the Morning Star.

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