When, in a speech to the Institute of Directors in 1991, Gerald Ratner uttered the words “it’s total crap” to describe the quality of the goods sold in his jewellery shops he set in train the near collapse of his business empire.
He so damaged the Ratner brand that the value of the company fell by £500 million, he lost his job as CEO the following year and a new name, Signet Group, had to be adopted.
The episode is now widely quoted in business studies as an example of how reputational damage can come from those responsible for the custodianship of a brand. No business, no person, is immune from the risk of ruining the goodwill that may have taken years or even generations to build up.
As the gloves come off in the EU referendum it is clear that our Prime Minister is “doing a Ratner”, and it is his own reputation, what we might call ‘Brand Cameron’, that is being damaged to the point it will eventually have little value.
When that happens he will no longer be able to remain for long as the UK’s CEO and a new name, creating a new brand with greater public acceptance will need to be found by the Conservatives.
It need not be this way. The Prime Minister could conduct himself with dignity and authority. Instead of picking fights with Boris Johnson, he should leave the counterarguments to other cabinet colleagues and talk about his view for the future of the European Union.
That he does not do this confirms he cannot resist having a demeaning personal scrap and suggests he cannot conceive an attractive vision for the growing European superstate whose next crisis could be one of a handful of scenarios threatening the UK’s future. Instead of baiting his EU-sceptic opponents by suggesting they are not being specific enough in their arguments, he should sack his own speech writers who have him peddling assertions not supported by facts and offering statistics open to direct challenge.
The Prime Minister is no fool; he knows what he is doing when he makes outrageous groundless claims – such as the Calais migrant camp moving to Dover – but he obviously feels he can get away with it, for winning the referendum at any cost has become the most pressing matter for the next three months of his life. If he loses, his reputation will be tarnished for the rest of history, despite his election success last year, but at least his party will heal and move on.
Such is the depth of division and personal animosity that Cameron is stoking up, it will be more dangerous for his party if he wins. Having told members the party machine would stay neutral, he uses party platforms to hector them, party databases to write to them and tries to have pro-EU publicity material put up in local offices. Many will not forgive him for breaking his word.
Last week he announced that, although he intends to retire as Prime Minister in 2020, he will seek re-election and sit on the backbenches.
The prospect of David Cameron becoming a latter day Edward Heath brooding over all that is wrong with his own party and becoming a focus for continued dissent will only ensure Tories keep “banging on about Europe” whatever the result on 23 June.
How has the Prime Minister achieved this? Firstly, he promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty that he failed to even try to deliver, causing the first doubts that he was a man of his word. He then promised EU reform, so fundamental that it would require treaty change.
Despite winning a fresh electoral mandate and having a very strong bargaining position, Cameron turned his negotiations into the perfect example of an EU fudge. Unlike Thatcher who came back with half a loaf from Fontainebleau in 1984, Cameron was left begging for a crust in Brussels and came back with crumbs.
Worse, he has since tried to claim those morsels as reform, a deceit that only the most sycophantic follower can maintain. Few who once bought his brand believe him.
The Prime Minister is now parading up and down the country, addressing cowed workers in industrial plants and berating us with half-truths and wild assertions about our economic prospects outside the EU. With German car sales accounting for 45 per cent of all UK registrations last year it is fanciful to suggest the CEOs of Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes Benz will not ensure there will be no tariff war that might hit this most lucrative export market.
When the Prime Minister uses erroneous statistics and sleight of hand by talking about the trade in goods rather than the trade in goods and services he does his country down and takes us for mugs.
Likewise, he tells farmers that £300 million of EU subsidies will be lost, forgetting to mention that there is no such thing as European Union money, only money that national governments give it – in our case a whopping £19 billion. After Thatcher’s rebate, those farm subsidies and other EU funding comes back, we are still £12 billion worse off.
The current level of financial support for farmers could be increased from the £12bn savings and tailored to our own needs.
At the rate David Cameron is insulting the intelligence of his own natural customers, his premiership will soon be past its sell by date and his place in Conservative affections as low as Ramsey MacDonald’s is in the Labour Party.