Revealed: Secret CBI minutes warn UK Government not to ‘overplay our hand’ in EU negotiations

According to leaked minutes from the CBI President’s Committee in July 2015, the CBI’s leadership has warned UK Government ministers ‘not to overplay our hand in negotiations with Brussels’.

The minutes – marked ‘confidential’ and published today by Vote Leave – show that the CBI is ‘stepping up’ its plans to campaign for the UK to stay in the EU and that its former President Sir Mike Rake urged his successor Paul Drechsler to ‘use [the] CBI’s influence to keep us in’.   

This comes as a new analysis of the CBI’s President’s Committee – the membership of which is not normally published – shows that 81% of its biggest business members are prevented by their own company rules from supporting political campaigns. This means that the CBI’s plan to campaign for a ‘remain’ vote in the upcoming referendum could not be supported by its biggest members and paymasters.

Alan Halsall, prominent businessman and supporter of Vote Leave, said:
‘The CBI says one thing in public and another in private. It claims that it has been “banging the drum” for reform in the EU but privately it warns Ministers not to “overplay their hand” in the negotiations.
‘The CBI is secretly drawing up plans to campaign in favour of the EU on the basis of its “dodgy” member surveys but most of its biggest members have company policies which mean that they are not allowed to support political campaigns.
‘The CBI should do the decent thing and drop its plans for a pro-EU campaign.  If it does not it will be misrepresenting its members and the wider business community.’


CBI warns UK Government not to ‘overplay our hand’ in EU negotiations

Publicly, the CBI claims that it only supports membership of ‘a reformed EU’. As the CBI Director General John Cridland said recently: ‘The CBI has been banging the drum for EU reform for many years and will continue to do so.’
In private, however, the CBI takes a different view. The confidential minutes from the CBI’s President’s Committee show that then President of the CBI, Sir Mike Rake, ‘highlighted that it is important not to overplay our hand in negotiations with Brussels’. The BIS and Foreign Office Minister Lord Maude of Horsham was in attendance at the meeting. This means that the CBI, which claims to be ‘the voice of business’, was privately telling the Government that British businesses did not want fundamental reform of the EU – despite saying the opposite publicly.

To download the minutes please click here

The CBI is planning to campaign for the EU in the referendum
Publicly, the CBI claims that it is ‘not affiliated with any of the “in” or “out” campaign groups’ and that it will consult its members on their stance after the Prime Minister’s renegotiation ‘if there is no reform’. The leaked minutes show that the CBI is in fact in the process of planning its ‘EU campaign’.  A supporting paper for the meeting of the CBI President’s Committee on 14 September 2015, also leaked to Vote Leave, reveals that the CBI will be ‘stepping up our campaign to highlight the benefits of EU membership’. The Britain Stronger in Europe (BSE) campaign has recently made heavy use of flawed CBI figures to support its pro-EU arguments.

Eight out of ten members of CBI President’s Committee unable to support political campaigns
An analysis by Vote Leave of those who attended July’s meeting of the CBI President’s Committee – some of its biggest members – has found that 81% are unable to support political campaigning. Given that these large companies will provide a large proportion of the CBI’s income from membership fees, it is unclear who exactly the CBI claims to be representing as it plans its political campaign to persuade the British people to vote to stay in the EU.
Of the 21 companies who attended the July meeting of the President’s Committee:

  • Fourteen companies have adopted total prohibitions on the use of company resources for political purposes, and a further three have adopted general prohibitions on political campaigning.

  • Four companies either have no policy or are neutral about company political activity.

  • This means that 81% of the corporate members of the CBI’s President Committee have adopted either total or general prohibitions on engaging in political activity.

In the light of these findings, it is difficult to see how the CBI’s decision to campaign in favour of the EU reflects the neutral stance that its major members are bound to adopt by their own company policies.
For the full breakdown see the tables below.

Media Contact

Robert Oxley

Head of Media,

Vote Leave

Notes to editors

Key quotes from the leaked minutes – underlining added

SMR [Sir Mike Rake, President of the CBI, June 2013–July 2015] reflected on the lessons learned from the Scottish debate and suggested this should be taken forward when we consider public views on reform, and what they want across the EU, not just in the UK. Highlighted that it is important not to overplay our hand in the negotiations with Brussels, like Greece and that CBI should be strong in making the case for competitiveness within Europe, as a key point in our reform agenda. Suggested that we are seeing a positive reaction to this from the European Commission in Brussels at the moment on key business issues. Finally SMR wished PD [Paul Drechsler] well as President Designate for the next two important years ahead for business. He urged Paul to use CBI’s influence to keep us in and ultimately to make the EU a better place to do business.’

KH [Katja Hall, former CBI Deputy Director General who moved to HSBC in October 2015] also noted the European Commission has appointed Jonathan Faull – the British Director-General of Financial Services at the Commission – to lead the negotiations on its side and that she had met Jonathan in Brussels a few days after his appointment. CBI will be providing updated resources for members and the public, setting out our EU campaign position. CBI will also make more use of our analysis of the alternative Swiss and Norway models.’

‘Digital and creative industries can reach public on a mass scale and this should be noted when CBI plans its EU campaign.’

‘EU referendum – Stepping up our campaign to highlight the benefits of EU membership and achieve reform’

The CBI President’s Committee

The CBI President’s Committee is a crucial body in the CBI. Meeting four or five times a year, the Committee ‘advises the president on the CBI's aims and objectives as well as on negotiations and relationships with other public and private bodies’. It members include ‘representatives of leading CBI members’.

Limitations on company political activity

Under Part 14 of the Companies Act 2006, a company must not incur political expenditure or make political contributions without the authority of a resolution of members of the company. A new resolution must be approved at least once every four years. This is without prejudice to the ability of the company itself to impose further limitations on political activity by the company.
Vote Leave has analysed the published policies and statements of all 21 companies whose representatives sit on the CBI’s President’s Committee. A full breakdown is provided below. Twenty companies have policies limiting corporate political activity. Of these:

  • Fourteen have adopted absolute prohibitions on making political contributions or taking part in political campaigning in the United Kingdom.

  • A further three (ABB, Capita & GE) have adopted policies which generally prohibit political contributions and campaigning in the United Kingdom.

  • Three (Airbus Group, ENGIE Energy and Oracle) have policies which are neutral about political contributions and activity in the United Kingdom.

  • In only one case (Veolia Environmental Services) does the company appear not to have a published policy on political activity.

Click here for a full list of the President's Committee and analysis of their published policies

Download our app

Vote Leave App