"Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that there is no evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq?"
Lynton Willow squinted across the podium at the question. Parliament was packed for Prime Minister's Questions, as it often was; the plush green seats were heaving with Members of Parliament, and some were forced to stand. After years in political service, he still wasn't quite used to the sight of them. Most looked like they were gently nodding off, but were actually listening intently to the speakers embedded in the seat backs. Every so often - for example, when the leader of their party asked a pointed question to the Prime Minister - they would jeer, almost in unison.
Tradition dictated that the debate was addressed to the Speaker of the House, who sat at the end of the room in a large green chair. It made little sense, except to give the Speaker the chance to quieten the room. While the workings of Parliament had once been a stately, polite affair, ever since Edward Heath and Harold Wilson's each took a turn as Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, the debate resembled more of a drunken pub argument than a discussion in the most fundamental chamber in government.
"Mr Speaker," Willow began. "I would advise the honorable gentleman that there is sound evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, as he well knows, as it has been provided in the dossier of information that at this point has been well-publicized. Saddam Hussein's regime was a clear and present danger not just to the United Kingdom, but to our allies in the United States and elsewhere. It was a matter of both national and global security that we neutralize this threat as soon as possible. I, for one, am proud that we participated in the Coalition of the Willing."
As usual, there was nodding and incoherent vocal support from his party; jeers from the Tories across from the aisle.
Willow stood firm. The truth was, the Leader of the Opposition had nothing to say. Both parties had an interest in toppling the regime. Anything else was just theater; both Labor and the Conservative party had financial backers who would make a profit from having a new ownership stake in the Middle East. While Saddam Hussein was installed and supported by a coalition including both the United States and the United Kingdom, he had become too big for his boots, and had begun to oppose the actions of both. He needed to be removed, Willow knew. His Weapons of Mass Destruction weren't necessarily superguns or long-range missiles; they were financial measures that would undermine the dollar and the global oil trade. Not only that, but a message had to be sent to other leaders in the region. The Weapons of Mass Destruction - if they truly existed - were a useful device that made it easier to sell the invasion.
And he was obligated to sell the invasion. That was the deal.
The Leader of the Opposition was ready with his follow-up. "Mr Speaker, what does the Prime Minister say to the accusation that United Nations inspections in Iraq have not yet discovered these weapons?"
"The honorable gentleman should rest easy that the weapons will be discovered," Willow said. "The Iraq Survey Group's inspections under David Kay have not yet been completed. We have high quality intelligence which points clearly to their existence, and I am certain that the honorable gentleman will agree that the work of our intelligence services is trustworthy."
And that was it. The Leader of the Opposition's remaining four questions would be on other matters; then two from the Liberal Democrats, which would be characteristically unsubstantial, and there would be no more Prime Minister's Questions until the next Wednesday.
He had always known that there would be compromises when he took this job, but he also knew that he was doing it for the good of the country. It was of vital importance that Britain retained its economic position. And the Special Relationship with the United States - rooted not just in history and mutual understanding, but also in long-standing debts arising from the Second World War - was important to maintain. Business depended on it; the economy depended on it; quality of life in the country he loved so much depended on it.
He was certain of that. And he would protect it by any means necessary.
There was always more to deal with, and Prime Minister's Questions were a sideshow to his day; a display of democracy for the viewers at home. The real work would happen later. The dossier of information had been dangerously imperfect, for one thing; a weapons expert had spoken to a journalist off the record, and the story was in danger of growing too large to control. The stakeholders were worried, and rightly so.
He would need to deal with the situation immediately.
Cris swigged at her Pamplemousse La Croix. The boardroom was packed with the combined Something Ventures and Source Code Financial teams. The New York City and Tokyo offices joined remotely over a videoconference line, although they had mostly stayed quiet; no matter how many billions of dollars were under management, or how many high technology startups they invested in, nobody had managed to make a videoconferencing solution that really worked. Remote teams tended to stay muted and send any questions over instant messenger.
Brad was taking the Source Code Financial team through their portfolio of investments. Normally these presentations stayed very high-level, including just the names of the high performers and some public news about them, but this was a different kind of meeting. Brad was taking care to discuss the issues with each one, and how much they privately thought each one was worth.
"One thing I think it's important to point out is that our companies with more diverse boards statistically do better," he was saying. "In our portfolio, companies with woman CEOs have valuations that are around 10% higher - but raise about half the money. There is an indisputable bias against women in venture capital, but despite those really poor odds, woman-run companies outperform. We go out of our way to make sure that we reach women and let them know that we're interested in funding them, through messaging, direct outreach with organizations like Women Who Code, and showing up at the right kinds of events. And of course, by having more diverse investors on our own team, we send a strong signal that we're going to be good allies and partners. That's not to say that we hire just for diversity; we hire the best people we can. But given an equal choice between a candidate from an underrepresented group and another straight, white man, we're going to hire from the underrepresented group."
John Ha, the Source Code Financial Managing Partner, looked up from his Microsoft Surface Pro. "That's interesting, but we're interested only in funding the best ventures. We don't have an interest in virtue signaling diversity - particularly when I don't see strong evidence across the board that there is a true funding gap between genders. It seems to me that women are simply less likely to found companies; they inherently have other interests. Our mission is to fund the world's most valuable companies. We're open to women and people from all backgrounds, and I see no need to message to any special interest group in particular. This is not a policy we will seek to continue."
"On the contrary, we actually do see evidence that there's a funding gap," Brad said. "It's true that women don't found companies at the same rates as men, but a lot of that has to do with what they see happening in the industry. We believe that if we show that they can get the funding, we'll see more women starting companies. The same is true of people of color - only 2.2% of venture capital went to startups founded by women of color for the last two years running. But I promise you, they're starting companies in higher numbers than that - and they're great companies. Funding them is the right thing to do, but it also gives us an advantage of the market. Because this systemic bias does exist, by not discriminating against diverse founders we can invest in great companies that we might otherwise not have access to. And we can be wildly profitable as a result."
"Our Limited Partners are not interested in these companies," John said. "If a founder is less likely to be able to raise outside funding, that's not a good story for us. To be frank with you, we need to have significant ownership stakes in the largest companies in the world that gather insights through data. Serving some social mission doesn't allow us to do that, and while it's nice to feel like you're doing good in the world, we're not out to do good. We're out to do well only. We look for growth, we look for value, and we look for data. End of story."
"But John, surely you see --"
John stared Brad down. "End of story."
Brad settled into his seat uneasily.
"Now," John said, "how many board seats do you hold in each of these portfolio companies?"
"We don't take board seats," Brad said. "Industry statistics show that startups do better when they're fully under the control of their original founders. We have board-level information rights, which means we get to see privileged financial information and sit in on board meetings if we want. But we don't get to vote on what the company does, or influence their policies or how they work, except by advising them. And they can always choose to take or leave our advice."
"This must change," John said. "We can have a stronger influence on how a company performs if we have a say in running the company. Typically, we install our own Human Resources manager, and take at least one voting board seat."
"But as I just mentioned, statistics show that companies perform better without this kind of interference."
"It's not interference," John said. "This is our deal with them. We invest more money into them than they would possibly receive from any other investor - because we have the largest fund of anyone in the world. But in return, we get a say in how their business is run. We get approval over who they can hire. We get say in their policies. If we need to, we'll install a CEO." He smiled. "It's not a moral issue. It's simply business."
"But it's not good business," Cris said, finally speaking up. "It's interference for the sake of interference. It will have a negative impact on how the company performs."
"Please don't contradict me," John said. "It's not up for debate. Whether it's good business or not for the startup is not the issue. It's good business for us. Our primary customer is not the founders of the businesses we invest in; it's our Limited Partners. And our Limited Partners insist that we take ownership, we influence the direction of these companies, and, most of all, influence how data is gathered and used in the technology industry as a whole."
Jack paused. "Let me be clear. These are not just our partners; now they're your partners, too. They don't just want profit; they want information. Our business is to give them access to that information, and now it's your business, too."
Brad stared, shellshocked.
Cris took another brief swig of her La Croix. "Then who, exactly, are our partners?"