Poacher turned discreet gamekeeper

The City's best-known PR man made a lucrative move from financial journalism. But can the Yes2AV campaigner win on voting reform?
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Roland Rudd will be in Rome today, celebrating his 50th birthday with his father, Tony, a former stockbroker whose 87th birthday is also today.

This is the first time their joint celebration has fallen on an Easter Sunday, and the younger Rudd has taken his extended family, including his sister Amber, a Tory MP, to Rocco Forte's Hotel de Russie for the weekend to celebrate in style.

It's classic Rudd; the City's best-known PR man is famous for his charm and generosity. Invitations to his dinners, where prime ministers old and new sit beside industry titans, are the most sought-after in town. Others say his power runs too deep, that his grip on UK plc is too strong.

The likelihood of the Rudd birthdays falling on Easter Day is – according to my research – remote. It has occurred only four times in the past 300 years. And some would say that when he returns from Rome, Rudd will be hoping for an equally odds-defying result to help him, and fellow campaigners, win the alternative vote campaign. At the last count, the polls gave the No campaign a 20 per cent lead and the odds against a Yes2AV victory are running about 3 to 1.

But Rudd remains defiantly optimistic. "We can do this; we've still got three weeks to go. I admit the campaign has been lacklustre until now. There's been so much negative campaigning. The No campaigners have been putting up those terrible posters of soldiers and babies dying, which are a travesty and outrageous. Without question, this has had a corrosive effect, turning people off politics."

We meet in an unostentatious meeting room at the offices of Finsbury, his PR agency, on the ninth floor of Tenter House, with distractingly good views across the City. It's from here that Rudd represents some of Britain's most powerful players. He doesn't have his own office, as staff work in an open-plan room – he likes to see what's going on – a legacy from his newspaper days. He bristles with restless energy, his Latin looks even more tanned as he's recently returned from South Africa where he took part in the 110km Cape Argus cycle ride to raise money for Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. "Tough, but fantastic," he says. But not that tough – he finished in four hours and 26 minutes – minutes behind clients Justin King of Sainsbury's and Vittorio Colao of Vodafone.

I've known Rudd for years, since the Sunday Correspondent newspaper, where I was City editor, and where he also struck up his now famous friendship with the BBC's business editor, Robert Peston. After a spell at the Financial Times, Rudd switched from writing about business to building one. He started Finsbury in 1994, turning it into one of the world's biggest PR agencies, with 100 staff and offices in New York, Abu Dhabi and Brussels. It has an enviable blue-chip list, representing a quarter of the companies in the FTSE 100 index including Royal Bank of Scotland, Rio Tinto, Aviva, Associated Newspapers, Centrica, Sky and Ford.

Finsbury tops the league table for mergers and aquisitons, and flotations, and is handling the $60bn listing of Glencore in May, the biggest float ever on the London Stock Exchange. Along the way, he's become friends with an eclectic mix – he was one of the wise men who advised Tony Blair what to do after stepping down as PM, is close to Lord Mandelson (godfather to one of Rudd's sons) and advises Nat Rothschild, the banker who was involved in the George Osborne and Oleg Deripaska Yachtgate affair.

Rudd began small, with a tiny office, a secretary "and enough money to change the light bulbs". But he did have one, very influential, client: Williams Holdings, then run by Sir Nigel Rudd (no relation), now chairman of BAA, and Sir Roger Carr, ex-chairman of Cadbury, chairman of Centrica, and president-elect of the CBI.

"I was at the Financial Times, writing about M&A and conglomerates. The takeover world always fascinated me. I had wanted to build my own business and could see a gap for a financial PR company which was utterly professional. Right from the start, I hired only the most financially literate staff and was determined to have the top FTSE clients," he says.

It wasn't long before clients poured in. After just six years, Rudd and co-founder Rupert Younger sold out for £55m to Sir Martin Sorrell's WPP group. Rudd made himself about £40m. "Anyone who tells you that making money is not a good feeling is being dishonest. Of course it's nice; it allows you to do good things – great holidays in places like China and Peru or collecting modern art, mainly British." He's also likes to take risks, investing in Breaking Views, one of the first online financial commentary sites, making another £1m or so.

Unusually for a spin doctor, Rudd doesn't mind sticking his neck out with his own views on controversial, if not unpopular political issues, such as AV. Getting UK plc engaged more with Europe was another Rudd project. When most of the country was hiding behind the mantle of euroscepticism, he was urging business to take centre stage on the Continent. He joined Britain in Europe, and was founder chairman of Business for New Europe, a group of top industrialists who wanted to work inside the EU rather than moan from the sidelines.

Rudd accepts there are problems with the EU, such as the common agricultural policy, but remains optimistic. "It's good news the Conservatives appointed David Lidington, who is playing a positive part."

He encourages immigration to the UK from the new EU states and promotes Turkey's membership. And, though it's politically incorrect, he supports a third runway at Heathrow. Hardly vote-winners. "My views have always stayed the same," he laughs. "It's the political parties that have changed their minds – on Europe, and electoral reform."

Now he's got less than two weeks to change our minds. As vice-chairman of Yes2AV, he's already persuaded a handful of top businessmen to come out in support, and help raise money through private dinners. Colin Sharman, the chairman of Aviva, Vijay Patel of Waymade Healthcare and Terry Duddy of Home Retail are among the backers. "When I explain the advantages to people in business, comparing it to good corporate governance, they get it. It's not been easy though."

But it's public apathy that the Yes2AV canvassers need to shift. Even the latest stories alleging Watergate-style tactics in the Electoral Reform Society's backing of the Yes campaign don't seem to be stirring the great British public, and pollsters forecast the turnout in London – important for the Yes campaign – will be about 20 per cent because of the lack of local elections. This apathy was borne out again even in North Essex, where my councillor, out leafleting for the local elections, described the mood on the doorstep as "indifferent, to politics and AV. All people want to talk about are their gardens." Only one person in her ward – an ex-Tory MP – said he would vote, and that was for AV.

"It's up to us now," says Rudd. "We've got a big advertising blitz starting tomorrow. There will be more debates, where we must be more convincing about why changing the system will be good for democracy." The focus will now turn to how AV will make MPs work harder to win votes and show how safe seats will become rarer, although not extinct as some predict.

"There are just too many constituencies where the first-past-the-post majority gives an MP a safe seat so people don't even bother to go out and vote. People should feel their vote is counted. What's interesting is that no one ever defends FPTP by saying it's so brilliant. Instead, the No people are using scare tactics such as the idea that AV will help the extremist parties. Quite the reverse. Under AV, the BNP will never, ever get in because you have to have half the vote. It's tragic that the No people are trying to present it as either a disaster for Clegg or the coalition if we lose. This debate is bigger than party politics."

Nor can anyone honestly predict what impact AV will have on the political landscape as it's more difficult than ever to judge what voters will do with their second preferences. "Two-thirds of all MPs in the country get less than 30 per cent of the vote. What's democratic or representative about that? If you look back in time to the 1950s, you had 94 per cent of voters voting for either Tories or Labour – today that is 40 per cent." Would he deny, then, even his sister, Amber, her seat? She won Hastings at the last election, beating the Labour incumbent by 4 points but with only 41 per cent of the vote. Shouldn't she have won? Rudd laughs again: "I'm sure Amber would win under AV too."

Rudd has been for electoral reform since Oxford, where he was the first Social Democratic Party president of the union, and then worked as a policy co-ordinator for Lord Owen. "I had met him at Oxford and then a few months later he phoned, asked me to meet him off a plane. That was a Friday, he offered me the job and I started on Monday – £7,500 a year. What a dream job." But while Lord Owen has always supported proportional representation – he will be voting against AV. "David is a purist but I think AV will lead to AV Plus and then, inevitably, we'll get PR," says Rudd.

Don't businessmen mind his lobbying? "I don't think they do; in fact, they rather seem to enjoy mixing worlds. One of the delights of having my dinners and parties is that I like to have people from industry, media and politics and they can share their views," he says.

Sir Roger Carr, who has known Rudd for 20 years, says there's no problem because Rudd is clear about the line between the two. "Roland is transparent. He has no hidden agenda, his clients know he's fascinated by politics and has strong opinions. But he keeps his business and politics in separate compartments. And if the client wants to mix them up, they can . But he's always up front . There's no secret. Part of his sucess is his high energy, constant good humour and clarity."

So will he voting for AV? Sir Roger chuckles: "I can't say – as I'm now at the CBI."

One area where merging worlds has triggered gossip is Rudd's friendship with the BBC's Peston, and the speculation that Rudd has been the source of many of his big stories – the Lloyds merger with HBOS being the most notable.

Rudd dismisses the gossip, saying that those who make the suggestion simply don't know the world of journalism, or business. "It's an absurd idea: Robert has a fantastic network of contacts built up over the years. And for me, the first rule about PR is that you are must be loyal to your client and utterly discreet. I have strict principles which run to the core of our business; trust is essential. You can't do this job properly if you are cynical. Advising clients on their strategy and knowing that you've been part of it is the most rewarding. So I wouldn't mess up that relationship. That's why I would never take a dodgy company or a dodgy country on – even if it would be good for revenue."

As an ex-journalist, though, does he think the influence of PRs, the ability to "drop" exclusives to chosen journalists, has made financial reporting lazier? Or, indeed, made it more difficult because PRs are increasingly the gatekeepers to company chiefs? "It's a good question but I don't think so. In my experience, it's difficult to stop journalists doing their work. The more likely scenario is that company chiefs can't understand why we can't always stop damaging media. But journalism hasn't been weakened."

Rudd knows all the party leaders well – apart from Ed Miliband – and voted for all their parties at one point or another: the Tories in 1979, twice SDP, once Lib Dem and three times for Labour.

"Don't make it out that I am 'mates' with everyone. The truth is that I do know a lot of politicians but mainly because I've worked with them. I got to know David [Cameron] well when we both worked for Michael Green at Carlton. Nick Clegg and I got to know each other through Europe. David Miliband became a good friend after I met him when he worked at the IPPR [Institute for Public Policy Research]. And I was at Oxford at the same time as Boris [Johnson], someone I've huge respect for." So who would he vote for now, if there were an election tomorrow ? "God, that's tough. Not really sure." Or won't say? My hunch is that he would back the coalition; he likes its radicalism.

"No comment," he says.

Curriculum Vitae

Born: 24 April, 1961

Education: Millfield School. Theology and Philosophy, Regent's Park College, Oxford University.

Career: Policy adviser to Lord Owen.

Reporter, Times, Sunday Correspondent, The Independent on Sunday and the Financial Times.

1994 to date: Finsbury financial PR agency (co-founder).

Family: Married to Sophie, a dressmaker (as Sophie Hale); they have three children – Rory, Issy and Ollie.

Homes: Kensington and Somerset.

Outside interests: Visiting Fellow at the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation and an honorary fellow at Regent's Park College. Patron of NSPCC's Stop organised abuse campaign; director on the Army Board; chairman of Tate's corporate advisory group; member of the Royal Opera House Foundation advisory circle, the Prince's Rainforest Project steering group, and the Centre for European Reform's advisory board.

Hobbies: Skiing, cycling, running and working out – at least four times a week. Supports Chelsea FC.