Resistible rise of the tycoon politicians

Al-Fayed's ambitions: Money gives Harrods boss the chance to throw stones at the windows of Westminster
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This was a trend which was supposed to pass Britain by. The United States, with its presidential elections, was always a place where the very rich could buy a shot at winning political power. Italy, with corrupted politics, was a country where tycoons could sweep away the old, at least for a while. In Asia too, we have seen businessmen-politicians, waving populist manifestos. But the British parliamentary and party system has always proved impermeable to capture by rich outsiders.

It will probably remain so. But Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, backed by pounds 20m of his own money, has shown that a rich and determined outsider, armed with a popular idea, can make the political establishment quake. Now Mohamed al-Fayed has looked and learnt that lesson. Starting your own party may not take you to Downing Street, but it forces real politicians to notice you. And it is undoubtedly great fun.

So far, these tycoon-politicians have tended to be remarkably similar in key respects. They are people who have been scorned by the political establishment. Sir James's protectionist views and buccaneering business career ensured that generations of Tories regarded him very warily.

Mr Fayed's battle with Lonrho over House of Fraser in the 1980s and his struggle with the Department of Trade and Industry, left him with a permanent sense of grievance about the British political elite, whom he felt had treated him unfairly. His subsequent failure to get a British passport, despite owning Harrods, the country's most famous shop, hasn't helped.

The tycoon-politicians also tend to be media-obsessed. The most famous example is Silvio Berlusconi, who came briefly to power in Italy in the mid-Nineties: he controls three television stations and the main TV advertising agency, though he is divesting himself of some assets later this year. Sir James founded Now! magazine, which failed in the late Seventies, beforebuilding a French media empire. Ross Perot made his money in computers and is keen on using cyberspace to link his Reform Party supporters together.

Steve Forbes, who did well in the early stages of the US Republican primaries this winter, is heir to a $1bn publishing empire, which includes Forbes magazine. And Mr Fayed has made repeated attempts to buy British newspapers; the Scott Trust which owns the Observer, recently refused a bid for that paper reputed to be similar to the pounds 23m he is now thinking of using for his political party.

Tycoon-politicians also betray a fondness for simple, eye-catching solutions. Sir James's referendum was preceded by Mr Perot's anti-Washington crusade; Mr Forbes's flat tax and Mr Berlusconi's Italian patriotism. In Pakistan, Imran Khan (married to Sir James's daughter) has launched a Justice Movement, against, well, injustice. The Fayed platform seems a little more complex, but its emphasis on freedom of information and a Bill of Rights is in the populist mould.

Thus far, apart from Mr Berlusconi, none of these people have actually won power. But they have won huge personal publicity of a kind few business figures can dream of. They have influenced political debate in their countries, forcing mainstream politicians to react. And at key moments tycoons have levered out the old establishment: in 1994, Mr Berlusconi helped break the corrupt Italian Christian Democrats. Three years earlier, at the other end of Europe, Bert Karlsson, a down-market theme park and record-label tycoon helped destroy the long rule of Swedish Social Democracy.

Britain shares some of the conditions exploited by tycoon-politicians elsewhere. Popular discontent with Westminster and Brussels echoes the hostility to Washington shown by middle America. Though British politics is not corrupt in the way that Italian politics has been, the sleaze stories of the mid-Nineties and the publication of the Scott report have helped undermine confidence in the unreformed political system.

We are not immune to seeing business people as popular heroes - Richard Branson and Bill Gates are obvious examples. And like other countries, Britain has shivered in the winds of global economic change which have stripped away some of the traditional security of middle-class voters, making political instability more likely.

The great difference, as Mr Fayed is likely to discover, is that the British parliamentary system, based on first-past-the-post constituencies, makes it far harder for a charismatic outsider to break down the gates of power.

Sir James is gaining his influence by frightening a divided and flailing party of government into thinking his people will help expel Tory MPs in favour of Labour ones in marginal seats. In Britain, tycoons can only throw stones at the windows of the closed Westminster elite. In a world where publicity and power are often mistaken for one another, Sir James and Mr Fayed remain potential party saboteurs, not alternative leaders.