The cast of those lining up to back ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the EU has been bewildering. A few weeks ago we found out that Sir Ian Botham is ‘batting for Brexit’. Then came the ‘luvvies’ letter – a missive from 250 actors, authors and musicians imploring Britain to remain in the EU or risk becoming an ‘outsider shouting from the wings’. It’s currently unclear whether Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy has been asked for his opinion.
The luvvies' intervention received a fair bit of condemnation. But as Osborne and Cameron dialled up the economic rhetoric in recent weeks, the introduction of household names from the arts perhaps helped move the argument (temporarily) away from the economy. It also kept the vote on the front pages.
But one group has largely failed to make an appearance: FTSE business leaders.
A Downing Street letter for the remain campaign from businesses earlier this year only had 36 signatures from FTSE bosses – down from 80 who had been expected to sign. When we read stories about High St bosses warning of Brexit, step forward messrs Leahy, King and Bolland - all of them no longer in post.
It’s because of this lack of talking from current business leaders that a recent FT Weekend leader column urged FTSE bosses to start making a stance for remain in the EU. The FT believes that Brexit would have a significant impact on the economy.
Why aren’t more business leaders taking centre stage in this debate?
You could argue that many businesses, particularly listed ones don’t want to be seen as too political or jeopardise the share price. Or you could say that business leaders backing remain don’t want to be derided or mocked by the Eurosceptic press. Undoubtedly true on both counts.
But it’s also true that many businesses have become even more cautious since the financial crisis too. The demonisation of business, the loss of trust in business leaders, together with the waning of the cult of CEO has made even more companies reluctant to comment. Of course PR is culpable in this measured stasis too.
It was perhaps a little predictable that Benedict Cumberbatch and the metropolitan creative elite would speak up. As for Beefy Botham’s views on Brexit I’m still struggling to see why that’s front page news. But I do believe that we need to hear more from the current leaders of major British businesses. Whether they are waiting in the wings or just declining to comment, we need them to take centre stage.
Matt Sutton is an associate director at Camargue.