Britain’s biggest employers’ group is preparing to appoint the chairman of Tesco to steer it through the crucial period of the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Sky News has learnt that the CBI is poised to name John Allan as its vice-president, a role that is expected to lead to him taking over from Paul Drechsler next year.
The appointment, which is expected to be unveiled this week, will cement Mr Allan’s status as one of the UK’s most influential business leaders.
In addition to his role at Tesco, he also chairs Barratt Developments, the housebuilder, and London First, the capital’s business lobbying group.
Sources said that Mr Allan would be seen as the obvious successor to Mr Drechsler, given the CBI’s traditional policy of promoting deputy presidents to the top job.
If he does take over, the timetable for the handover of the presidency would see Mr Allan taking the helm in the middle of next year, meaning that he will hold the post when the UK leaves the EU in March 2019.
Mr Drechsler was reappointed last week for an unprecedented third year at the business lobby group, as it seeks to ensure a degree of continuity through the first phase of the Brexit negotiations.
The CBI has consistently opposed the UK’s departure from the EU, and last week hardened its position over the terms of Brexit, calling for Britain to remain in Europe’s single market and customs union until a final deal is in force.
“Instead of a cliff-edge, the UK needs a bridge to the new EU deal,” Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI director-general, said on Thursday.
“Even with the greatest possible goodwill on both sides, it’s impossible to imagine the detail will be clear by the end of March 2019.
“This is not about whether we are leaving the EU, it is about how.”
In his London First role, Mr Allan has also expressed concern about the potential consequences of Brexit, warning that the impact of restrictions on free movement of people and an economic downturn would particularly hurt smaller companies.
Last month’s General Election result also heightened anxiety among many bosses about the likely trajectory of the UK economy.
However, it has emboldened those who want the Government to pursue a so-called ‘soft Brexit’ approach to the talks with Europe, potentially preserving some degree of single market or customs union access.
Ms Fairbairn was among a group of business leaders who attended a summit on Friday chaired by Cabinet ministers including David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, and Greg Clark, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary.
Mr Davis is reported to have told bosses from companies including BT Group, Centrica and Barclays that hopes of continued single market access were unrealistic.
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Mr Drechsler said he was concerned that the Brexit debate lacked clarity about the impact on jobs and the economy.
“Give people the facts, give them the business case, let them understand what these generalised promises are and a wonderful headline from the President of the USA or from the Prime Minister of Japan,” he said.
“The substance that matters is what are the jobs and opportunities for the next generation and what level of debt will this country leave them.”
He also warned against rushing into a bilateral trade deal with the US, which risked seeing Britain gripped in a ‘bear hug’ by a more experienced team of trade negotiators from across the Atlantic.The CBI, which has 190,000 members encompassing businesses of all sizes, found itself at the centre of a political storm last year when it argued strongly in favour of the Remain campaign.
Its annual conference in November 2015 was ambushed by Leave campaigners while David Cameron, the then prime minister, was on the stage, and since the Brexit vote, has seen prominent members such as JCB, the manufacturing group, terminate their membership in protest.
The CBI declined to comment on Sunday, while Mr Allan could not be reached for comment.