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Pret a Manger recently announced it was cutting 2,900 jobs in the UK (PA)


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On Tuesday, the Prime Minister assured his Cabinet that “people are going back to the office in huge numbers across our country.”

The evidence doesn’t appear to back him up. According to Transport for London, there was just an 8% week-on-week rise in Tube usage, with passenger numbers still 72% below pre-Covid levels. And, though the Office for National Statistics reports the home working is falling, it still found that just 57% of workers commuted to work last week.

This seismic cultural change is already having a tangible effect on the lives of workers. City-centre staples Pret A Manger and Costa Coffee have announced they are eliminating close to 5,000 jobs between them due to falling footfall. Online shopping giant Amazon, however, said it was creating 7,000 new roles within the next year.

As a result, a divide is forming within Westminster: should the government do more to get people back into offices or try to work with the ‘new normal’? 

Given the make-up of the 2019 parliamentary intake, The battle between back-to-the-office “hawks” and those who want to see the economy rebalanced could become the major battle of the electoral cycle.

 

On the one hand, many parliamentarians hope that getting workers at their desks will reverse this trend and avert a potential crisis of unemployment. 

“It’s all about trying to get back to some sort of normality,” one Tory MP told PoliticsHome. “I know there’s going to be a new normal, as they keep saying, but we need to get as close as we possibly can to what it was before. Because, at the end of the day, we all depend on our economy and our town centres and our high streets doing well.”

Ostensibly, this is the government’s side of the argument. Yet its efforts to put that forward have been repeatedly undermined by its own example: commentators have noted for weeks that many of its own civil servants have not returned to the office. 

Another Conservative backbencher found this infuriating: “The government’s one of the worst culprits,” the MP said. “None of the civil servants are coming back to work. I’ve been told by some civil servants that they’re not coming back until January.”

And now there is already a clash with the unions over the government’s efforts to return the civil service to offices; one which doesn’t look like it will be resolved any time soon.

None of the civil servants are coming back to work. I’ve been told by some civil servants that they’re not coming back until January.

A major part of the problem is a simple question of logistics: According to the Telegraph, plans for a media blitz aimed at encouraging people back into work were postponed this week, amid concerns that the government’s social distancing guidelines weren’t compatible with a mass return to work.

“With Covid-safe guidelines it is not possible to use office space with the intensity that we used to use it, so it is not possible to bring lots of people back suddenly,” Alex Brazier, a financial policymaker at the Bank of England, told the Treasury Committee earlier this week.

“There are merits to working in an office when it comes to efficiency and collaboration and creativity, but because of those constraints I don’t think we can expect to see a sudden and sharp return and return of people to very dense office environments.”

As a result, there is a growing school of thought among the backbenches and elsewhere in Whitehall that the government’s focus should in fact be on rebalancing the economy, rather than returning it to what it was.

This thinking is typified by a widely shared opinion piece by the Financial Times columnist Sarah O’Connor, who this week argued: “Britain’s economic geography was under strain even before coronavirus. Good-quality jobs had grown ever more concentrated in London and a few other big cities like Manchester. That didn’t work for the rest of the country, and it didn’t work particularly well for the city dwellers either.”

How might this play out in Whitehall? Some MPs predict that the debate could reignite tensions within the Government between those more concerned with the economic recovery, and those focused on public health.

“There’s going to be tensions between Health and the Treasury,” another Tory MP said. “The Treasury would ideally like things to get back to normal but even the Treasury’s got to realise if we go back to work faster we’ll have a second spike then the damage will be even worse.

“But, obviously, Matt Hancock is going to want to be ultra-cautious because success for him will be judged slightly differently.”

And they added that those opposed to the back to the work message felt ministers should “bend with the breeze”.

“Societal habits have changed, a seismic change, and it’s no good the Government sitting there trying to turn the tide back because I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

There’s going to be tensions between Health and the Treasury

Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Tom Tugendhat sits in the same camp. He agrees that ministers should be working with the current climate, rather than go against it.

“I want people to get back to work but what that means will be different to other people,” he told The House Live

Tugendhat adds: “Many people have been looking for a rebalancing of life for a very long time. I’m always cautious about the Government telling people how to run their lives. There are 65 million people in the UK and the reason I’m a Conservative is because I don’t think Whitehall knows best.

“I think 65 million people know best about how to run their lives and it’s not for me to tell people how to do it.”

A Government source denied that there was any split between the departments over the issue, insisting that they were all “on the same page” about the return to work. 

But there is precedent here: Tensions between DHSC and the Treasury have already flared up in April, however, over plans to relax lockdown.

The Sunday Times reported that a group of “hawks” including Rishi Sunak, as well as Gavin Willaimson, Alok Sharma and Liz Truss were behind a push to lift restrictions. Mr Hancock, however, was said to be “vocal” that his priority was protecting the NHS.

The Health Secretary also attracted scrutiny last week after he appeared to undermine the PM’s back to work plea when he claimed he had “absolutely no idea” how many of his staff were at their desks. 

The reason I’m a Conservative is because I don’t think Whitehall knows best – Tom Tugendhat

“What I care about is how effectively people work, and obviously people should come back to the office if that is what they need to do their job,” he told Times Radio.

“And also, employers need to make sure the offices are Covid-secure, as we have obviously in the Department for Health, as you would fully expect us to.”

“But what I care about is that people perform and so the people I work with, some of them have been working from home, some come in sometimes, some are full-time.”

Against this, however, there is pressure on the government from business leaders, who are arguing that the Government’s current messaging is not enough and that more must be done to persuade the public to return to a semblance of normality.

“While many businesses have been investing in making workplaces safer, we are unlikely to see significant growth in footfall while government advice remains to ‘work from home if you can,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium.

“Unless this changes, more should be done to encourage people to travel and reassure them that public transport is safe.”

There are also other factors that could slow a mass return to cities. Boris Johnson confirmed on Wednesday that he was working with the rail industry on introducing flexible season tickets to “ensure better value and enable people to get back to work in an effective way”.

And, despite the reopening of schools, a survey of working mothers by the Trades Union Congress found that 41% claimed they were struggling with childcare. A separate survey last month by childcare.co.uk revealed that a third of centres expected to shut down, equating to the loss of 560,000 places.

Another MP said some within the party were frustrated at the London-centric approach of the back to work push. 

They said: “Most of my constituents can’t work from home because they’re in service sector jobs and are relatively low paid. 

“We’ve got a much larger manufacturing sector than other parts of the country. You can’t do manufacturing work from home. I think it’s a bit more of a Shires and London problem.”

It remains to be seen how this growing ideological fault line will be resolved. For all the government’s public bombast over the need for a speedy return to the office, it may be that their hand is forced by the sheer gravity, and Britain is ushered into a new economic future.

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Why Amazon and Reliance are fighting for Future Retail in India

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Amazon (AMZN), the Seattle-based e-commerce firm owned by Jeff Bezos, is fighting a $3.3 billion deal struck between Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries and the Indian retail conglomerate Future Group.

What’s at stake is strategic access to a network of popular grocery stores and retail shops in India — something both Amazon and Reliance want to either have for themselves, or to prevent the other from acquiring.

“If someone backs down, it will give the impression that one has lost and the other has won, when the fight has just started,” said Counterpoint Research analyst Tarun Pathak.

Amazon has 31.2% market share in India’s e-commerce industry, just behind Walmart-owned Flipkart’s 31.9%, according to a recent report from market research firm Forrester. But Ambani has made no secret of his ambitions to upend the market with JioMart, which is part of his sprawling conglomerate.

At the heart of the current battle is Future Retail, the cash cow of Future Group. The retail unit includes brands like Big Bazaar, a well-known, popular hypermarket chain in India. In August 2019, Amazon invested in a Future Group entity that gave it a roughly 4.8% stake in Future Retail as of September 30 this year, according to stock exchange filings. The deal gave Amazon the right of first refusal to acquire more shares in Future Retail, according to one of the filings.

Then Covid-19 hit. India enforced one of the strictest nationwide lockdowns, ordering shops to shutter and millions of people to stay indoors for months.

The pandemic has had a “significant adverse impact” on Future Retail’s business operations, the company said in its most recent earnings report. In July, Future Retail’s credit rating took a hit after it missed a bond payment. Fitch Ratings downgraded Future Retail’s rating two notches to C, signaling that the company was “near default.”
The following month, Reliance and Future Group announced that Reliance was buying Future Retail and several other assets. The deal allowed Future Group to “achieve a holistic solution to the challenges that have been caused by Covid and the macro economic environment,” Kishore Biyani, Future Group CEO, said in a statement at the time.

A legal dispute

The announcement took industry watchers by surprise.

“Everyone knew Amazon had a stake in Future Retail, and the deal didn’t mention what would happen to Amazon’s stake,” said Satish Meena, analyst at research firm Forrester.

Amazon responded by filing a complaint to the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC).

Indian companies and foreign companies operating in India often agree to settle disputes in Singapore because “it’s a neutral jurisdiction with high integrity and international standards,” according to Ashish Kabra, a lawyer who heads the International Dispute Resolution & Investigations Practice for Nishith Desai Associates in Singapore.

The arbitration process is confidential and none of the submissions are public.

Amazon argued that the 2019 deal struck between it and the Future Group entity included a non-compete clause, a person familiar with Amazon’s perspective told CNN Business. The clause listed 30 restricted parties with which Future Retail and Future Group could not do business, and Reliance was on that list, the person said.

“The key question really is what’s the validity of contracts if you just ignore them,” said the person familiar with Amazon’s side.

“Are companies just going to ignore contracts and do what they please?”

A SIAC emergency arbitrator gave Amazon a small victory this week when it ordered a temporary halt on Future Group’s deal with Reliance, according to the legal order seen by Reuters, which has not been made public.

Future Group had argued that if the deal with Reliance falls through, its retail unit will be forced into liquidation and 29,000 people will lose their jobs, according to Reuters, which cited the Singapore order. The order is not public, but the person familiar with Amazon’s perspective confirmed that Future presented this argument.

But the arbitrator ruled that “economic hardship alone is not a legal ground for disregarding legal obligations,” according to the order, Reuters reported.

“We welcome the award of the Emergency Arbitrator. We are grateful for the order which grants all the reliefs that were sought,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.

CNN Business contacted Future Group for comment, and received a statement from Future Retail.

Future Retail said it “is examining the communication and the order” from SIAC.

Reliance (RRVL) said in a statement that its deal with Future Retail is “fully enforceable” under Indian law.

“RRVL intends to enforce its rights and complete the transaction in terms of the scheme and agreement with Future group without any delay,” said the statement.

But in the past, Indian courts have usually followed the lead of orders passed by emergency arbitrators outside of India, according to Kabra, the lawyer.

“What parties have previously done, is they approach Indian Courts and ask for similar reliefs in India, while relying on the order of the Emergency Arbitrator. Indian Courts usually grant the same relief,” said Kabra.

A ‘clash of the titans’

For Reliance, which operates 11,000 stores throughout India, and Amazon, the No. 2 e-commerce player in the country, Future Retail’s 1,500 stores are not a must have, says one analyst.

“It’s not like without it you can’t have your ambitions, if you don’t have Future [Retail],” said Pathak, of Counterpoint Research.

This is “less about Future and more about the clash of the titans,” as well as “protecting your turf,” he added.

To compete with Amazon and Flipkart, Ambani’s JioMart has been growing its presence in India. It expanded to hundreds of cities across India earlier this year and plans to branch into electronics, fashion, pharmaceutical and healthcare soon. The company will also likely tap into Reliance Retail’s network of physical stores across the country to fulfill online orders, according to analysts.

The industry had expected Amazon and Reliance to forge some kind of deal in the future, because they need each other’s expertise, according to Meena, of Forrester. Amazon needs more shops to expand inventory and use retail spaces as storage and delivery hubs. And Reliance doesn’t have a lot of experience in e-commerce, according to Meena.

But any kind of partnership between Amazon and Reliance in the future “depends upon how much bad blood is between them now,” said Meena.

“It might end up becoming an ego battle between the CEOs of both the companies,” he said.

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Ivory Coast elections: Voters go to the polls amid opposition boycott

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image copyrightEPA

image captionVoting cards have been distributed ahead of the presidential election

Polls are set to open in Ivory Coast’s controversial presidential election.

At least 14 people have been killed since riots broke out in August after President Alassane Ouattara said he would run again following the sudden death of his preferred successor.

The main opposition candidates, Pascal Affi N’Guessan and Henri Konan Bédié, say it is illegal for Mr Ouattara to stand for a third term.

They are boycotting the vote and have called for civil disobedience.

  • Old men, chocolate and Ivory Coast’s bitter election

  • The politics of human rights in Ivory Coast
  • A quick guide to Ivory Coast

What is it so controversial?

According to the constitution, Ivory Coast has a two-term presidential limit. Mr Ouattara – who has been elected twice – initially said he would stand down.

But, in July, the ruling party’s previous presidential nominee, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, died of a heart attack.

Mr Ouattara subsequently announced that he would run for president after all.

His supporters argued that a constitutional change in 2016 reset the clock and that his first term did not count.

His opponents do not share that view, arguing instead that it is illegal for Mr Ouattara to run for a third term.

What’s the background to the tension?

There has been a decades-long quarrel between some of the country’s leading political figures.

In 2010, Laurent Gbagbo, who was president at the time, refused to concede to Mr Ouattara following the election in that year and this sparked a bitter civil war.

More than 3,000 people were killed in the five months of violence.

Mr Gbagbo also put himself forward to stand in this year’s election but the electoral commission blocked him because he had been convicted in the Ivorian courts.

He was one of nearly 40 potential candidates who were turned down by the commission.

Who are the four presidential candidates?

  • Alassane Ouattara, 78, an economist. Became president in 2011, serving his second term after years in opposition.

    Party: Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP)

  • Henri Konan Bédié, 86, career politician. Served as president between 1993 and 1999, deposed in coup. Party: Democratic Party of Ivory Coast (PCDI)
  • Pascal Affi N’Guessan, 67, career politician. Served as prime minister between 2000 and 2003 under then-President Laurent Gbagbo. Party: Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) faction
  • Kouadio Konan Bertin, 51, career politician, known as KKB, was once youth leader in the former ruling Democratic Party of Ivory Coast, is now an MP. Independent candidate

Related Topics

  • Ivory Coast

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Bugatti unveils a super light hypercar that can top 300 mph

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The Bugatti Bolide — a name that comes from French slang for “very fast car,” according to Bugatti — is a concept car designed solely for track driving, not for use on public roads. The Bolide has a modified version of the huge 8.0-liter 16-cylinder engine found in Bugatti’s Chiron, the brand’s core model. It’s built to be super light and can reach a top speed of well over 300 mph, according to Bugatti.

Bugatti hasn’t said whether it will sell the Bolide, but performance brands like Ferrari and Lamborghini offer track-only cars for wealthy customers who want to experience driving in their own private racecars. Cars like this don’t have a lot of the crash safety equipment required in road cars, like airbags, but they do have the specialized safety gear required on many race tracks, such as fittings for racing harnesses.

Designed for optimal aerodynamics, the Bolide is a little over three feet tall, which is about a foot shorter than the Chiron. To get in, occupants must sit on the door sill and put their legs inside before sliding over into the seat.

In designing the Bolide, emphasis was placed on reducing weight and improving aerodynamics. The air scoop that rises from the roof is covered in a special skin that forms blister-like bubbles at high speeds. The bubbles improve air flow over the scoop by 10% while also reducing aerodynamic lift by 17%, according to Bugatti.

All the screws and fasteners in the car are made from titanium, according to Bugatti, and much of the rest of the car is made from lightweight carbon fiber and titanium alloys. The Bolide weighs just over 2,700 pounds, compared to 4,400 pounds for the Chiron. A lot of weight was also saved in the Bolide by giving no consideration to luxury and very little to comfort. The interior is extremely sparse and simple with thin, light racing seats instead of the nicely upholstered seats used in the Chiron.

“All of Bugatti’s expertise has been condensed into the Bugatti Bolide,” said Stefan Ellrott, head of development for Bugatti.

Engineering the Bolide was an opportunity to try new techniques with the aim of reducing weight and increasing performance, he said. For instance, the turbochargers attached to the engine were specially designed to enable more power at high speeds. Bugatti’s already high-performance lubricating systems were redesigned to deal with extraordinarily high cornering forces that can cause oil to move away from where it’s needed.

Should Bugatti ever decide to sell the Bolide, the price tag would certainly be in the multiple millions of dollars, based on the price of Bugatti’s other cars and the cost of similar types of cars from other automakers.

The Chiron, on which the Bolide is based, costs more than $3 million and only 500 will be made. In recent years, Bugatti has introduced a number of other cars based on the Chiron’s engineering, including the Divo, a version designed for lower top speeds but better cornering, of which only 40 will be made. There was the Centodieci, a car designed to celebrate Bugatti’s 110th anniversary, of which just 10 will be built. The Centodieci has a starting price of $9 million and the Divo $6 million.

A more practical Bugatti?

Interestingly, engineers and designers at Bugatti had been working on something radically different for the brand: a lower priced and more practical model. But that work has been put on pause due to the pandemic.

“We were looking at a four-seater with a completely different design — not an SUV, not a sedan, something really, really unique in terms of design and creating a new segment,” Cedric Davy, chief operating officer of Bugatti of the Americas, said in a recent interview. “It’s not dead, but for now, nobody is working on it.”

Adding a more practical model to the lineup is something other supercar companies have embarked on as they seek to appeal to more customers and boost profits.

Bugatti’s sister-brand Lamborghini — both are owned by Volkswagen — began selling the Urus SUV in 2018, quickly doubling Lamborghini’s sales. And Ferrari has been working on something it calls the Purosangue which is expected to be unveiled next year. Executives insist it will not be a traditional crossover SUV, but it will be roomier and more comfortable for passengers than any previous Ferrari.

The reason for the temporary halt to development of the four-door model isn’t any sort of financial constraint, a Bugatti spokesperson insisted, but simple uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Developing a new model involves working with and vetting suppliers, creating prototypes and gauging what the market might be after the pandemic is over, all of which is hard to do at this time.

To save weight, the Bugatti Bolide's interior, shown in an illustration, has none of the shiny metal or quilted leather seen in some of Bugatti's other cars.
But there may be even bigger changes afoot for Bugatti. There have been media reports that Volkswagen is considering selling the brand to Rimac, a Croatian company that makes electric supercars. A Volkswagen spokesperson would not comment on those reports. Rimac did not respond to a request for comment on the reports.

At any rate, Davy said he’s not terribly concerned.

“I’ve been with Bugatti four years and it’s probably the fourth or fifth time that I’ve heard that the company is being sold, so I’m not too worried,” Davy said.

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