You're hired! The Apprentice reaches its climax

As the BBC's most popular programme goes into its final fortnight, only one budding entrepreneur will win the dubious honour of working for Sir Alan Sugar. So who should it be?
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The Independent Culture

Lucinda Ledgerwood, by Johann Hari

I'm backing Lucinda because – with the possible exception of Lee – she is the only contestant on this year's Apprentice who appears capable of showing any empathy or self-knowledge. The others seem to believe success in business – or in life – is about stamping on everyone around you until their internal organs burst. Alex slithers around, silently undermining everyone else; Claire barges past them without even an apologetic shrug as they go tumbling off the cliff.

Amidst these velociraptors, Lucinda is a little beret-wearing bear. She tries to succeed by articulating her own feelings, and understanding the feelings of everyone around her. It's this quality that has made her the only good manager in the entire series: she got the others to perform by – a shocking concept! – listening to them carefully, and at every stage talking it through. Her degree in psychology paid off. As a result she even earned a rare sliver of praise from Margaret Mountford, Sir Alan Sugar's mildly terrifying henchwoman.

In the early episodes, Lucinda was dismissed by the other contestants as "lazy" because they simply couldn't understand her approach. Whereas everybody else rushes to be The One With Glory, Lucinda quietly tries to get it right.

She is also – unprecedentedly for The Apprentice – self-aware. Michael was still jabbering that he was "a brilliant salesman" after failing to sell anything with his distinctive technique of shrieking at customers: "For God's sake you're a fool if you don't buy this! Don't you know what you are doing to ME? What's WRONG with you?" Lucinda said all along she was rubbish with technology – so why was Helene surprised she screwed up after being put in charge of a complex computer programme?

Of course she can get too emotional and sometimes she overdoses on honesty – like when she told Sir Alan Sugar that "closing a deal isn't my greatest strength".

But do you want The Apprentice to be a celebration of autistic ambition and self-promotion, or of the quieter office operators who hang back, figure out how everyone feels, and try to ensure they all do their best? If you're down with the second team, join me in donning a beret of solidarity for the next fortnight.

Johann Hari is an 'Independent' columnist

Alex Wotherspoon, by Jacqueline Gold

Alex was excellent this week. At the beginning of the series I thought he was a bit shifty, trying to blame other people for his team's mistakes.

Margaret was quite right about him stepping so far back he was almost out of the room.

But maybe it's a confidence thing for him – he did really well with the supercars, which was a tough task. He's a grafter.

I think Claire is an extremely capable girl, but her interpersonal skills are worse than Sir Alan Sugar's. In a true working environment, she probably isn't so bolshy, and would be more popular.

Having done The Apprentice myself, in the celebrity series, I know the pressure they put you under is enormous, and I don't think you see people's true colours. When you push someone to the edge, you don't bring out the best in them.

Michael had personality, so you could see why Sir Alan had a soft spot for him. I think he was unfairly fired; Helene should have gone. She's got nothing to offer, and there's no point having pointless people in the team.

You're better off having a bit of a loose cannon, and I think Sir Alan had been hoping that one week Michael would come good.

I used to like Lucinda, but she's become a bit of a whinger. If you tell yourself you can't sell, then you won't be able to. You don't need someone to hold your hand, you just need to go for it. The fact that she didn't even try in the last programme disappointed me.

I'm not that keen on Lee. Maybe it's his manner; he's a bolshy one, as well.

The programme-makers often keep some of a person's good points back until nearer the end of the series, and I don't think we really know very much about Alex yet.

Sir Alan doesn't normally pick strong characters – think of Tim Campbell, whom he hired, and Ruth Badger, whom he fired.

The programme is called The Apprentice, so he's looking for somebody he can develop and mould.

Alex has had a steady success rate, and he doesn't upset people. But because he's not very outspoken, you sometimes forget he's there. I think we need to see more of him, and I hope he's got more to offer than we've seen so far. And like Tim, Alex can get on with everybody.

Jacqueline Gold is chief executive of Ann Summers

Helene Speight, by Sean O'Grady

Helene is a woman who knows what she wants. With the exception of Ruth "The Badger" Badger in the series before the previous one, no more formidable female has strode into the life of Sir Alan Sugar. Her catchphrase is: "I don't have regrets. I do what I do and deal with the consequences." That says it all.

She's shown herself to be hard, but fair. OK, she has also been hard, but unfair. I admit I didn't much like the way she tried to bully Lucinda. I'm also a bit unclear about what a "Global Pricing Leader" like Helene actually does. But she was a tough project manager on the photography task at the Bluewater shopping centre, and the wedding dress project that went wrong wasn't her fault.

She's rarely had to go into the boardroom for a telling-off. You can tell she's an excellent all-rounder, but northern rock hard with it. That's just what Sir Alan needs in his organisation.

Most of the past winners of The Apprentice have, to put it bluntly, been flops. For one reason or another they mostly haven't stayed long with the Sugar organisation. That's because too often Sir Alan has gone for the "nice" characters, people totally unlike himself, or at least his business persona. At the beginning of every show he tells the candidates: "Don't tell me you're like me, because I'm unique." True, but I think the time has come where he needs to pick someone a little bit more like himself.

According to her website, Helene is equally at home drinking wine with the girls and having a pint watching the rugby.

If she could stretch to enjoy watching Spurs play at home – a big ask – she may be the perfect partner for Sir Alan.

Sean O'Grady is Economics Editor of 'The Independent'

Lee McQueen, by Kelvin Mackenzie

It's hard to choose from the line-up because The Apprentice has had very good contestants this year.

There are no idiots or clapped-out rock chicks like the contestants in some reality shows. The tasks have been made harder, and reality television has become more intelligent for it.

But I think Lee McQueen should win. I think he is a cunning little shit and has all the attributes of a fine salesman. A certain element of any business is sales, and some people can do it and some can't. He's a big front-of-house guy, handsome and tall. He has a rather dim view of his colleagues and that will be true wherever he works as well.

But if he's going to have a successful sales life, he's going to have to change his visage. The face you're born with is important. Sir Richard Branson is a smiler though I think he's not a nice bloke at all – and he's incredibly successful. Lee has got a good face to begin with but whenever he comes up against a colleague, he gets chippy, which could cause problems with some.

I also like Lee because he doesn't carry passengers. You could see that when he was critical of Lucinda. There's an old expression I've always carried around with me: "Lower the lifeboat, I'm in." My advice is that Lee would be a great follower of that particular view. It's that single-mindedness which will get him into the final.

The person I really miss is that bloke Raef. He was such a ridiculous character – he looked like a Conservative chancellor. I didn't actually want Raef to win – although it would have been good for a laugh because Sir Alan Sugar would have eaten him for breakfast.

I cannot imagine what it would be like if he brought in some bad news to him about a sale. Whereas Lee would try to stand up for himself.

Kelvin MacKenzie is an ex-editor of 'The Sun'

Claire Young, by Lembit Opik

My money is on Claire. Her performance has been steady and increasingly impressive. I was in human resources at Procter & Gamble and wearing my HR hat, I'd say Claire displays strategic thinking ability and an unpompous ability to be part of a team. I think Alan Sugar respects those attributes. He hates show-offs whose self-image exceeds their capabilities. But Claire doesn't seem to overreach. She has innate interpersonal and team skills, but was less confident about displaying them earlier in the series. As other people have blown themselves out with arrogance, her more centred approach has gained prominence. The fewer people there are, the better she's become at working within the team. She's finding her confidence and expressing her capabilities. I don't think that's lost on Alan Sugar. She could still mess it up, but of the remaining candidates, she is the most plausible.

At the beginning, The Apprentice is always a bit of a circus. Some contestants would not have come through a multinational's recruiting process. There are moments when I hear a raspberry blowing in my head, saying: "If I'd done that at Procter & Gamble, I'd have been in front of the boss, too."

In my experience as a former contestant, Sugar doesn't fire for show, he fires on the basis of his judgements. And the closer we get to the end, the more we have potential business professionals in the frame.

Lembit Opik is the Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire