Britain’s main business lobby group, the Confederation for British Industry (CBI), is scrambling to draft a survival plan this week after a slew of sexual misconduct allegations against senior staff sparked a stampede of corporate members, while both main political parties also refuse to talk to it.
More than a dozen allegations of misconduct within the organisation have now emerged, including stalking and harassment complaints. The most serious allegations concern two alleged rapes of female staff members by CBI colleagues, in graphic accounts first reported by the Guardian.
Meanwhile, the organisation’s Irish former director general, Tony Danker, says his reputation has been “destroyed” after he was sacked earlier this month following an investigation into his allegedly inappropriate office behaviour, which is not connected to the more serious allegations.
Mr Danker, who grew up in the Glandore area of north Belfast, comes from a well-known Irish-Jewish family. His uncle was the late Trevor Danker, who moved to Dublin in the 1970s and worked for many years as the social diarist of the Sunday Independent newspaper.
Mr Danker, a former McKinsey consultant and one-time Guardian executive, took over the CBI at the height of the pandemic in November 2020. He now claims he was made the “fall guy” and was “thrown under the bus” by the CBI because, he says, his sacking has become muddled up with coverage of the more serious issues such as rape.
The allegations against the Irishman concern non-work messages he is said to have sent to female staff, which some were uncomfortable with. He was also accused of making other junior staff members feel uncomfortable with one-to-one meetings and social media contact. He said he was “mortified” for causing anxiety to staff and it was “unintentional”.
The maelstrom of scandal surrounding the CBI, which also works closely with the Ibec business lobby in Ireland, has forced it to suspend all activities until at least June after more than 60 big corporate members such as John Lewis and Aviva said last week they were walking away from the lobby group.
This followed the publication on Friday of a Guardian account of an alleged rape after a night’s drinking by two CBI staff of a female colleague who worked in an overseas CBI office. The newspaper said it viewed explicit photos of her engaged in sexual acts to which she says she did not consent. Another woman says she was raped at a CBI party in 2019, while a third says she was stalked in 2018.
The CBI, which was founded 58 years ago under a royal charter, has for years been the main cross-sectoral lobbying voice of the business community in Britain, with the ear of successive governments.
However, relations with the government became strained following Brexit. The business community was mostly opposed to Britain leaving the European Union while the CBI also championed a soft Brexit after the vote, while the Tory party pursued a hard exit.
Relations hit rock bottom when Boris Johnson was prime minister, with sources suggesting that the CBI was “punished” by the Tories for opposing it in public. Mr Danker appears to have tried to smooth over relations, especially since the ascension to Number 10 Downing Street of former chancellor Rishi Sunak. In recent months, however, the CBI was still seen as having a better relationship with the Labour Party – Mr Danker was formerly an adviser to a Labour government.
Prominent Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested over the weekend that the “pallbearers” would soon be out for the lobby group. However, another Irishman with CBI connections, the organisation’s former president, Paul Drechsler, told The Irish Times that he thought there was a chance the CBI could survive “with the right management and strategy”, as there was no ready replacement for it to lobby government in a similar way. Even then, he conceded it would likely have to rebrand.
“I’m not saying it will [survive]. It is just possible that it can. But the challenge is enormous,” he said.