Westminster jungle proves too tough for top business people

Many business leaders are lured by the bright lights of Westminster. But their skills are unsuited to the grubby world of politics, says George Pitcher

The cat having been put out and the Cabinet safely secured, New Labour has decamped to Tuscany and Provence with not a few journalists in tow. Thank goodness I’m going to Bordeaux.

I imagine most business people will be avoiding the Government’s favourite holiday haunts. Not for the old capitalist-versus-proletariat reasons, but largely because there is a mid-term torpor hanging over corporate life – the honeymoon with Tony Blair isn’t over, but the sex has stopped.

One small symptom of this is the departure from Government of Lord Simon. David Simon is a charming and erudite businessman who should never have had to play second fiddle to Bob Horton during darker days at BP. His tenure as a minister at the Department of Trade & Industry was reportedly unhappy, marred by backbiting accusations about conflicts of interest through his residual BP shareholding, which he was forced to sell.

Conventional wisdom has it that Simon gave up the chief executive’s chair at BP to the hugely respected John Browne – who has gone on to build the BP empire with the acquisitions of Amoco and Atlantic Richfield – only to find he now has to slink back into private-sector anonymity, bruised and disillusioned.

He will evidently have to scrub along, the gossip goes, as an adviser to European Commission head Romano Prodi. That is, if no headhunter can find a FTSE chairmanship for him. And it’s all the fault of Blair and his triumphalist tribe, now sunning themselves with self-satisfaction in southern Europe.

New Labour ostentatiously paraded its important business friends at the last election, like trophies on an open-top bus. The Conservatives were just as bad. Archie Norman is said to regret his foray into politics – the chairmanship of Marks & Spencer may rescue him for the retail private sector.

Well, poor Simon. And poor Norman. Apart from the odd exception that proves the rule, such as Michael Heseltine, these innocent business heads have been tempted away from their honest labours by the glitz and promises of scheming politicians. But their skills have proved incompatible with the grubby world of Westminster – these are men used to devising and implementing strategy, not cutting and thrusting just to stay in power.

So say their apologists. But there is an alternative view. It is that there is a type of business person who adores the prospect of working in politics, who seeks the opportunity and sees his whole corporate life as little other than a preparation to serve the nation.

Businessmen don’t always want the inconvenience of being elected to do so, of course – they have enough of that sort of thing with shareholders at their AGMs. Lord Young was an example in the Thatcher years and he was even given a Cabinet post as Secretary of State for Trade & Industry. Simon is undoubtedly cleverer, but the same principle may apply.

So perhaps we should not feel too sorry for them when politics does what it does to any creature that proves too weak for the law of the jungle. You survive by the death of others – that much is true of the world of business too. But the difference is that, in politics, there is no meritocracy attached to the process of natural selection. That may be a lesson that Simon has just learned.

It may be a lesson that Lord David Sainsbury has yet to learn. Like those before him, Sainsbury’s heart appeared to lie with the Labour Party, while the grocery chain over which he presided began to lose the fight with Tesco. Like Simon, Sainsbury has had cheap, though typically political, allegations of conflict of interest hurled at him – in his case, over the development of genetically modified foods.

It really must be galling at times to have all the hassle over conflicts of interest and to enjoy none of their benefits. Whatever this Government decides to do about GM foods, we can be sure that it will have no bearing on how it affects the business of the supermarket chains, or the fact that a member of one of their founding families gave them money ahead of the last election. I’m not suggesting that the Government will be high-minded over this issue, just that Lord Sainsbury won’t ask and the Government won’t bother.

Sir Richard Greenbury, erstwhile chairman and chief executive of M&S, agreed to chair a committee on executive remuneration in the last government and made no secret of how much he regretted it. If one adds the experience of Asda’s Norman and the anticipated disillusionment of Sainsbury, then I think we have the makings of an unhappy retail trend in Parliament.

The transition to political life in all commercial sectors need not be so unhappy. The House of Lords, if it can still be called a part of Parliament, has what we might call a media and marketing bench in the form of Lords Chadlington (Shandwick and IPR), Bell (Chime Communications) and Saatchi (M&C). I know not whether these Lords are a-leaping, but I suspect that marketing services are a better preparation for politics than retailing or energy.

So, a little food for thought as the business community goes on its own summer recess: stick to what you’re good at.

George Pitcher is a partner of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon. He will return from holiday in September 2 issue


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