This week, Helen Alexander entered this cauldron as new president of the Confederation of British Industry. Once styled the bosses' union, the CBI prefers to be seen as the voice of British business, and it is a voice the former chief executive of the Economist Group believes needs to be heard at what is becoming a turning point for Britain.
"I would not do this role if I did not firmly believe that most people in business are trying to do the right thing … and are generally responsible and serious," she says. "But equally I think it is quite important to recognise a wake-up call and say: actually, are there some questions we can ask ourselves? Have we got a chance to remodel some things and make it even better?"
That wake-up call has been heard loud and clear by politicians seeking to curry favour with an electorate that has come to see them as having had their snouts as firmly in the trough as some of the City's bankers. Calls for a clampdown on executive pay and tighter regulation of the way the City conducts itself are coming from backbenchers who judge the mood of voters to be mutinous in the face of their second-home allowances, duck houses and moats. For many in business, meanwhile, a 50p tax rate is the thin end of a wedge that the expenses scandal could drive more deeply into business, ending in much more regulated markets. Everywhere, unfettered free-trade capitalism is under sustained attack.
Alexander recognises that the crisis could lead to political decisions being driven more by emotion than by what is best for Britain in the long term. But, in keeping with the reputation she earned for maintaining a cool head in a crisis during her 11-year tenure at the top of the Economist Group – "I don't throw typewriters at people" – her response is to call for calm and reason.
"The danger of unintended consequences, or knee-jerk regulation, is clear. How you then stop it happening is another question, but a CBI voice, making sure people take the time to think things through … that is what matters.
"I am," she taps the wooden table for luck, "broadly encouraged by what I see in terms of people recognising the danger and not going overboard.
"People have not completely lost their heads, the CBI certainly has not lost its head and most people running businesses – big or small – have not. They have their feet on the ground because they are having to deal with some pretty basic things, like cash and credit."
Untangling the banking system so that companies can again invest will be one of Alexander's main challenges, as will dealing with government plans to tackle the ballooning deficit and the size of public-sector pensions. Meanwhile, global stockmarkets have staged a rally. But CBI director general Richard Lambert has warned that the green shoots have shallow roots and the government cannot use the possibility of recovery to put off bold steps to deal with the dire state of the public finances.
Alexander is similarly cautious: "There are signs of confidence – does a stockmarket rally here and in the US make a difference? Clearly it makes a difference to confidence, but who knows whether it is long term. There are deep, deep uncertainties still."
One other thing she believes needs to change is the make-up of Britain's boardrooms. Increasing diversity is one of the main aims for her two-year tenure in the presidency. She has already warned of the dangers of what she terms the "group think" that can be generated by homogenous management.
"I think there are all sorts of people we need to get more of into business. If you look at it in terms of class, race, gender, there are lots of opportunities not to waste talent and that is what it is all about: making clear that talent has a place to play in business."
There is still, for instance, a shocking lack of women in top positions in British business (she is the first woman to become CBI president in its 44-year history). "Making sure you have the right balance of skills and teams is really important. If you have a good management team in business it is generally one that includes lots of points of view and that is likely to mean they come from different backgrounds."
But Alexander can be accused of ticking all the traditional City boxes: she was educated at one of London's top public schools, St Paul's Girls' School, where she is now deputy chair of the governors; went to Hertford College, Oxford; then collected an MBA from one of Europe's top business schools, Insead. She bristles at the charge that she is effectively a City grandee in a skirt – albeit with a preference for trouser suits: "I started at the Economist as the marketing manager. I've licked envelopes like anybody else."
She first heard about the CBI a few years after it was founded from her father, a board director at Bowater Paper, best known at the time for producing newsprint and later to become part of Rexam. She takes obvious pride in having secured a place there.
So what about taking the opportunity to rein in some of the excesses in the boardroom by clamping down on executive remuneration? "I think it should be left up to individual companies and remuneration committees to make sure that they get that right. It is serious stuff and they need to take it very seriously."
She chairs the remuneration committee at Centrica, which she joined as a non-executive director in 2003. It owns British Gas, which became a byword for corporate greed in the 1990s when Cedric Brown became a tabloid hate figure after pocketing a 71% pay rise.
The City has been rocked by pay revolts at companies including Shell, RBS and Provident Financial, and there are calls for investors to become more aggressive in voting down pay awards rather than relying on their traditional method of expressing dissatisfaction: abstention. Alexander, in contrast, believes abstentions are looked at very closely in the boardroom.
But the fact that the CBI, which has always been a big tent, now looks more like a marquee as its members include banks in which the government has an increasingly large stake means there is a fear that the organisation will become hampered by the sheer number of differing opinions held by members. Alexander sees that diversity as a strength, not a weakness.
"It is a member organisation and that is the good news – it is really grounded. You can walk round the corner and find policy thinktanks, but this one actually has the grounding of what the members think. That is why it is the voice of business."
How much attention gets paid to that voice in what promises to be a period of debate dominated by the shrill voice of populist politics remains to be seen.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017