Westminster's too wild for industry's big beasts

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The Independent Online

Sceptics might call it proof that money can buy you anything, or maybe just plain old cronyism. Yet Lord Drayson appeared immune to such sniping last week when he answered Tony Blair's call and swapped business for power.

Sceptics might call it proof that money can buy you anything, or maybe just plain old cronyism. Yet Lord Drayson appeared immune to such sniping last week when he answered Tony Blair's call and swapped business for power.

The co-founder of vaccine maker Powderject Pharmaceuticals was made the minister for Defence Procurement and a Government spokesman in the House of Lords. He had sparked controversy in 2002 when Powderject was awarded a £32m contract shortly after he gave £50,000 to Labour, so any criticism now may be water off a duck's back.

He's not the only businessman to have been lured into Labour's ranks; it's a well-trodden path. Lord Sainsbury of Turville, for example, is one of the longest-serving, having survived the reshuffle to remain Science minister.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, a one-time transport minister, was the head of Scottish Media Group, though as a former union activist, he had long been a political beast; Lord Simon of Highbury, the ex-chairman of BP, was minister for European trade and competitiveness; TransTec boss Geoffrey Robinson became paymaster general, and music mogul Lord Levy, Mr Blair's chief fundraiser, an envoy to the Middle East.

Include the suits that sit on committees, head task forces, are elevated to the Lords, bankroll the party or just spread New Labour's message, and it would seem you couldn't see the party for the businessmen.

The Tories did it too, though; Margaret Thatcher made her "favourite businessman", Lord Young of Graffham, trade and industry secretary, and Edward Heath named Shell managing director John Davies as trade and industry secretary.

Corporate Britain believes such appointments benefit government. "The more businessmen who go into politics the better," argues Miles Templeman, the director general of the Institute of Directors. "Businessmen have a greater experience of getting things done. Politicians don't. They might have better ideas about what should be done, but the businessman works out what makes politics effective."

Sir Digby Jones, his counterpart at the CBI, is a fan of the US system, where business and politics are closely linked, and says he wants "10 times more" businessmen to go into politics. "The country needs experts in the executive. We need to get as wide a representation of society in the House of Commons as possible."

But this is no natural career path - business and politics are very different. Archie Norman, the former Asda chairman and Conservative MP, tells a story about one of his first House of Commons speeches. "He told me how he had crafted his speech, stood up and after two minutes they were shouting at him," says a friend. "After five minutes he was shouting back." Here was a man used to people listening when he spoke and acting on what he said - not shouting back.

Tony Travers, a political analyst at the London School of Economics, says that unlike in other countries, such as France and Germany, which have a history of people crossing the divide, British businessmen do not make natural politicians. "The way the apparatus of British government has evolved - with its oratory traditions and the enormous stress it puts on public performances - has made it more difficult for certain individuals to be as successful as others. That isn't to say there aren't businessmen who don't have these skills, but there are many who don't."

One of the few exceptions is Michael (now Lord) Heseltine, who boasted just such oratory skills beside business acumen as a publisher. Both he and Mr Norman were elected. The more controversial switch is when government appoints a businessman.

Lord Sainsbury was criticised for his stance on genetically modified food amid claims that, as a grocer, he had a vested interest. Mr Robinson's home loan to Peter Mandelson prompted the then trade secretary's resignation. And there were mutterings about whether Lord Simon's BP shares posed a conflict of interest (he eventually sold).

But perhaps the biggest accepted failure was Mr Davies, the Shell man summoned by the Tories. "Here was somebody brought in from the highest level to the top of government," says Mr Travers. "But he is a good example of an appointment that didn't work because of the shock he encountered when he arrived in this complex world - with its Sir Humphreys, accountability and all these things that make it so different from the boardroom."

Put simply, the City does not equip people for life in Westminster.

Mr Norman, for example, does not regret his time as a MP but adds: "In politics, everyone's an entrepreneur. Team working is not a big part of it. I'm impatient go back to a world where I can have an impact."

Battles held in the privacy of the boardroom are one thing; the public war in Parliament is quite different. There, only the shrewdest political operators will succeed - and leading a FTSE 100 giant or making millions is irrelevant. Lord Drayson, take note.