James Ashton: More entrepreneurs in politics – that’s diversity


In San Francisco there is much excitement about Dropbox, an online document-sharing firm designed to chip away at the all-powerful Microsoft Office (in which Index is an investor). This week it paraded new apps that take it further into the Flickr and Instagram territory of photo sharing.

Another new addition to Dropbox came in the shape of Condoleezza Rice to the company’s board. The former US Secretary of State is a powerful recruit for any firm with global aspirations. At one stage, she had been suggested as a chairman of Glencore, but the commodities trader has been remarkably slow in filling that role – let alone recruiting a woman to its board.

Business and politics rarely mix well in Britain, as serving MPs often face claims of conflicted interests. Ken Clarke’s laid-back turn as a non-executive director of British American Tobacco passed off well enough, but the YouGov co-founder and Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi has been unfairly criticised for sitting on the board of the recruitment firm SThree while it has supposedly benefited from Tory health reforms.

It is easier for politicians to separate their two careers if they either make their money before they enter Parliament or cash in, like Tony Blair, afterwards. Investing in some of the former sports minister Lord Moynihan’s ventures would have reaped dividends – as long as you offloaded shares when he did. Another senior Tory who has bloomed in corporate circles is Virginia Bottomley, now a headhunter at Odgers Berndtson.

Can the two worlds be better entwined? Serving MPs sitting on the boards of large companies should be the exception. But luring bosses out of the boardroom for part of their careers is a must if government is to understand the needs of industry.

For all the scrutiny of the Cabinet and its shortage of female ministers after the exit of Maria Miller from the culture brief, counting up those with real entrepreneurial experience is also instructive. Several cabinet members have successful backgrounds, such as Ms Miller’s replacement, Sajid Javid, a former investment banker. But only a couple have built and run businesses: Grant Shapps and Jeremy Hunt. With rebuilding the economy centre stage, it is another diversity issue that needs addressing.