The businessmen who changed their spots

Michael Harrison looks at New Labour's latest recruits from industry and finance

The chief executive of Prudential, Sir Peter Davis, yesterday became the latest senior businessman to be drafted in by Labour to help with the Government's legislative programme.

Sir Peter has been appointed chairman of the advisory task force that will develop the welfare-to-work scheme designed to get 250,000 long-term unemployed youngsters into jobs.

The Chancellor Gordon Brown, chairman of the Cabinet's welfare-to-work committee, said the pounds 612,000-a-year head of Prudential had the perfect blend of skills and experience to turn Labour's plans into reality.

Others, however, voiced some surprise at the choice. Although Sir Peter has been chairman of the Government's Basic Skills Agency for the last eight years, Prudential, Britain's biggest insurance company, is also heavily embroiled in the pensions mis-selling scandal.

Sir Peter was also one of the group of 42 businessman who wrote famously to the Times before the 1992 election urging the country not to vote Labour, warning: "The spirit of enterprise is not a hardy plant. Nor is it yet so firmly established that it can survive in a hostile climate."

But then a great many other businessmen have also changed their spots since 1992. The Amstrad chairman, Alan Sugar, another signatory to that letter, has signed up to lecture young people on business on behalf of Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade. He is in good company at the DTI. David Simon, the former BP chairman, has been made a minister in the department with responsibility for Europe and competitiveness while Lord Hollick, a long-time Labour supporter is acting as special adviser to Mrs Beckett.

Other businessmen co-opted to help Labour include the chief executive of Barclays Bank, Martin Taylor, who is chairing the Treasury's pensions and benefits review, and Malcolm Bates, former deputy chairman of GEC and now chairman of the Pearl insurance group, who is chairing a review of the Private Finance Initiative for the Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson.

Other business leaders with an entree to Downing Street now that Tony Blair is its occupant include Gerry Robinson, the chairman of Granada, Bob Ayling, chief executive of British Airways, and Virgin's Richard Branson. Mr Ayling is a close friend of the Home Secretary, Jack Straw. The two men shared a 50th birthday party.

Among those definitely out of the loop are Sir Desmond Pitcher, chairman of United Utilities, who prided himself on his close contacts with the previous government, and Sir Stanley Kalms, chairman of Dixon's and a well-known scourge of socialism, even of the pale pink Blair variety.

Also persona non grata are Ed Wallis, chairman of PowerGen, who has lobbied harder than most against the windfall tax, and John Neil, chief executive of Unipart, who backed a campaign before the election to boost the image of privatised companies. Nor will Lord Hanson and Sir Rocco Forte be found on any Labour guest list but neither man probably much cares.

Somewhere in the middle are floating voters whose affiliations are uncertain. Rupert Murdoch's Sun backed Blair at the polls but is the News Corp chairman a personal convert to Labour?

Sir Iain Vallance, chairman of BT, voted Labour but his support has been tempered by the prospect of BT being clobbered by the windfall tax. Sir Dick Evans, chief executive of British Aerospace, likes Labour's support for Eurofighter but not its promise to crack down on arms sales.

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