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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anna Isaac

How the tide turned against the CBI’s director general

Tony Danker
Tony Danker at the CBI’s annual conference in 2022. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

The director general of Britain’s most prominent lobby group is not leaving quietly. On Tuesday morning, hours after learning of his dismissal from the Confederation of British Industry, Tony Danker posted a series of tweets in which he revealed he was “shocked” at the decision, which followed allegations of misconduct.

Some present and former staff did not share in his sense of surprise, they told the Guardian, four weeks after this newspaper first revealed the allegations against him.

The CBI said in a statement on Tuesday: “Tony Danker is dismissed with immediate effect following the independent investigation into specific complaints of workplace misconduct against him. The board wishes to make clear he is not the subject of any of the more recent allegations in the Guardian but has determined that his own conduct fell short of that expected of the director general.”

Danker responded on social media, saying he had expected to be invited to make his case to the CBI’s leadership before any announcement was made. It is understood he had already given an account of his position in response to the allegations against him to the independent investigation, by the CBI-appointed law firm, Fox Williams.

Danker said he recognised the CBI had suffered intense publicity, before adding: “I was nevertheless shocked to learn this morning that I had been dismissed from the CBI, instead of being invited to put my position forward as was originally confirmed.” He added that many of the allegations against him had been “distorted”.

CBI chief steps aside over claims on conduct
The Guardian front page from Tuesday 7 March. Photograph: Guardian

The CBI claims to speak on behalf of 190,000 businesses in the UK, and to have unrivalled access to government at all levels. Danker, who was born in Belfast, joined the organisation in November 2020 and sought to patch up the lobby group’s ties with the government, which had soured during Brexit negotiations. He now leaves it amid the biggest crisis since it was founded by royal charter in 1965.

Separately last week, the Guardian reported that more than a dozen women claimed to have been victims of various forms of sexual misconduct by senior figures at the CBI, including one who alleges she was raped at a staff party on a boat on the River Thames.

Danker said on Twitter that these latest allegations, which do not relate to him, dated back to before he joined the organisation, and that he had learned about them for the first time this week.

Some events are alleged to have happened while he was in charge of the organisation. They have led to the suspension of three other CBI employees, announced on Tuesday, pending the outcome of the next phase of the Fox Williams investigation. On Tuesday afternoon, City of London police announced that it had opened its own investigation, saying it “takes all acts of sexual misconduct and violence against women and girls extremely seriously”.

The force said in a statement: “We approached the CBI following media reports and our investigations are at a very early stage.”

The Guardian was first approached by individuals concerned about conduct at the lobby group earlier this year. Some current and former staff believed that, until the Guardian first reported on them in March, allegations against Danker had not been taken seriously enough. Those allegations included one which was made formally in January this year.

After being approached about the allegations, Danker went on paid leave.

Some of the complaints made about Danker’s conduct related to spoken remarks, others to his use of social media, digital messages and in-person behaviour.

It is understood that the woman who made a formal complaint against him in January alleged that Danker made unwanted contact with her and she considered this unwanted conduct to be sexual harassment.

The CBI decided to allow Danker to continue in his role for months after the complaint was made, representing the influential organisation in the media and at public events, including a conference where the keynote speaker was the education secretary, Gillian Keegan.

It was not the first time staff had raised concerns about his conduct with managers at the organisation.

The investigation considered that this had included an invitation sent from Danker’s personal email address to a select group of individuals for a private karaoke party following the CBI’s Christmas party in 2021 at LuckyVoice Soho.

The Fox Williams probe also examined allegations that Danker sent invitations to particular staff for one-on-one private lunches, drinks and dinners and had repeatedly viewed some individuals’ personal Instagram accounts after searching for them.

In early March, the CBI confirmed that in January it had received a formal complaint about Danker’s “workplace conduct” but opted not to escalate it to a disciplinary process.

“The allegation was investigated thoroughly and was dealt with comprehensively, in line with CBI procedure,” the CBI president, Brian McBride, said in March. “The CBI investigation determined that the issue did not require escalation to a disciplinary process.”

Still, after the Guardian inquired about the formal complaint and raised several additional allegations about Danker’s behaviour towards other members of staff, the CBI said it had started an independent investigation and that Danker would stand aside pending the outcome.

It hired Joanna Chatterton, at the law firm Fox Williams, to lead the investigation. Matthew Fell, the CBI’s chief UK policy director, had replaced Danker on an interim basis.

It is understood that Fox Williams presented its phase one report, focused on the Danker allegations, to the CBI board just ahead of Easter. On Tuesday, it is understood that the CBI sacked Danker with immediate effect and without discussion regarding a financial settlement, on the basis of independent legal advice.

Danker, as he indicated on social media, was informed of his dismissal shortly before the news was made public.

Danker was chief executive of another lobby group, Be the Business, prior to taking the helm at the CBI. He had previously worked at the Guardian’s parent company, Guardian News & Media, as international director and chief strategy officer between 2010 and 2017.

He is now being replaced by the CBI’s former chief economist, Rain Newton-Smith, who had left the CBI only last month to join Barclays.

The law firm’s investigation will now focus on the separate allegations, which span several years, including a boat party in 2019, at which one woman was raped, it is claimed, and there was also a different attempted sexual assault.

It is unclear when it will next report on these separate findings. The CBI is liaising with the police.

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