Britain’s car manufacturers’ club, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), held its International Automotive Summit yesterday.
It has been a much bigger event in the past, but this one boiled down to half a day in London, probably because the organisers suspected the VW scandal would overtake everything. In fact, that subject did come up in the 8.30am pre-summit briefing, although there was a distinct feeling that we’ve entered a period when talking must stop and VW’s various acts of penance must begin – and roll on for years.
What was truly shameful, though, was the non-appearance of anything resembling a political leader. These people profess, at other times, to love the British car industry. Without quite saying so, they’d like you to think its achievements this past few years are mainly down to them. But yesterday, despite the suggestion in an early edition of the summit’s running order that an industry minister would show up, there was no one. Fair-weather friends and all that…
It was a good event, though, cheerfully fronted by the SMMT’s CEO, Mike Hawes, a definite force for good in tough times since his arrival from Bentley. The other ‘featured artists’ were pretty good, too. The real heavyweight was the BMW board’s tame Brit, Ian Robertson, who gave another of his dazzling presentations, leaving us in no doubt that electric propulsion will be the norm quite soon – as will connected cars, shared cars and all the rest. His case as irresistible.
Nissan’s European chairman, Paul Wilcox, called for longer-term commitment by government to projects like the recently established Advanced Propulsion Centre, and to more skills training, although I’d have warmed more to him if he’d proposed a few new initiatives of his own. In any case, there was, as I’ve said, no politician around to hear his appeal. After that, the FT’s economics editor took 20 minutes to summarise the world situation. (No need to panic, he told us. Weird occurrences are normal.)
A remarkable bloke from the Chinese embassy, Jin Xu, did a 10-minute stand-up routine to prove his countrymen were actually quite warm and friendly, and a subsequent Chinese panel discussion reassured us that this mammoth country’s dominant place in world markets was secure. Aston Martin’s Andy Palmer was his usual engaging self on the subject of premium cars, telling us again about Charlotte, the super-successful southern Californian lady who will buy one of his proposed hybrid crossovers once he starts building them.
Then the closest thing to a politician appeared. Former Labour minister Patricia Hewitt swept in, now wrapped in the colours of the UK India Business Council. She hectored us a bit, and led a half-hearted discussion between Tata’s Tim Leverton (good bloke, great at making cars, bullish about India) and Gamil Magal, an Indian components mogul, who repeatedly and inconveniently remarked that you had to tolerate India’s endemic corruption if you were to get anything done.
It ended at lunchtime. As I walked to the Tube, I couldn’t help thinking nostalgically of the halcyon days of Vince Cable, inconveniently voted out of doing a good job by the foolish burghers of Twickenham. He always seemed to lend a gravitas to these affairs that distinguished the industry. He also used to be aided in this by eloquent ex-Ford product development chief Richard Parry-Jones, who sadly went on to fight a few rounds with the railway industry that he spectacularly lost.
Our industry may be healthy, but it needs advocates as never before. So far, by my judgement, there’s no indication that the incoming industry minister, Sajid Javid, has any real notion of that. Perhaps he’ll show up when the VW furore has declined a bit and he needs a convincing photo op. The reception is unlikely to be frosty, but it should be.