For the past two weeks discussions surrounding the announcement by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have seemingly dominated the news. From debates over the UK’s attitudes to race, the rights the privacy and family dynamics, their Instagram statement has offered scope for all manner of discussions - both trivial and significant.
Here in the world of PPP, it may have appeared to be a rather inconsequential story, perhaps for watercooler chatter alone. However, the lengthy period of finalising details of how the family will be funded and whether or not they’ll be allowed to ‘cash in’ on their royal connections have only begun to be revealed this week and has led to greater scrutiny of the royal set-up.
Predictably, not everyone is happy about the revelations, but perhaps more surprising are the reasons why. Issues over people who are now, to all intents and purposes, private individuals making large sums of money off the back of investment from the state, arguments about continued cross-jurisdictional public funding and debate about to what extent it is reasonable for wealth to be generated by private entities when they began life under public ownership. These are the topics which have prolonged the Sussexes’ departure, and could just as feasibly be applied many PPPs.
The initial announcement claimed that the Sussexes: “Intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen.” The issue of what constitutes working to becoming financially independent was vague on details and the move away from financial support from the taxpayer has led some to feel aggrieved about money which has already been spent on the couple.
Initially there was no mention of the GBP2.4 million which the couple received in order to refurbish their Frogmore Cottage home. The Sussexes have subsequently agreed to repay the money and begin to pay for rent and running costs. Although, this appears to be a suitable conclusion, it’s been rather a PR nightmare for the couple who have appeared to be rather tone deaf in their plans and have misunderstood the mood of the general public.
Like any company or individual who receives money from the public purse the Sussexes should have been aware of the fact that there is always a compromise between the reality of a situation and the way in which it is likely to be reported in the press. Meghan Markle, in particular, was in a position where she was likely to be criticised regardless of what she did, due to the fact she does not have the support of the press. In this way she has much in common with our industry; PPP is the Meghan Markle of infrastructure. For rather spurious reasons, the press has taken against the idea of public-private partnerships and are therefore likely to always be criticised.
It is due to this uneasy relationship with the press, that it is imperative to ensure you have a good PR strategy and unlike the Sussexes, don’t give any ammunition to a press which is baying for your blood. There has been contention around how the Sussexes have seemingly behaved in ways which breach protocol and/or are considered to be unbecoming. These supposed rules are unwritten, but as with any party who is seem to have made money from the public purse, there is an expectation around how one must behave.
The scandal has much in common with the David Metter ‘King of PFIs’ skiing story from 2011. In that case Innisfree‘s Mr Metter was roundly criticised when he was photographed enjoying an expensive holiday in the luxury ski resort of Chamonix. The holiday was privately funded; however, the fact that Mr Metter had amassed his fortune through money investments in PFIs led many to see impropriety. As with the Megxit scenario there was the story of a high-worth private individual enjoying their wealth and being dammed for doing so.
The resulting backlash reverberated through the industry and company jollies are no longer what they once were. Although money is still made through PPP, people involved in the industry are now far more aware of the optics and are more couth about how they flaunt their success.
The Megxit debacle, like the Metter one before it, reflects the fact that that within the general public there is an uneasy relationship between private individuals making gains from public spending. The headlines may appear very different but at its core the story of split with the royal family is much the same as the public scrutiny and debate over Metter, HS2 or the Olympic Stadium. This is a PPP story for general consumption- just with added crowns.