Entrepreneur flirted with Tories

JAMES CUSICK

Richard Branson has always denied that he is party political.

Britain's king of self-publicity, monarch of entrepreneurs and even for some presidential contender, is rumoured among friends to have said that if he had to vote, he would vote Tory. His photocall appearance alongside Tony Blair may thus have rung alarm bells in certain Labour ranks. But as he pointed out yesterday: "I have always stayed out of party politics." Maybe, but he has had a few serious flirtations.

As Tim Jackson states in his recent book Virgin King, just as Mr Branson's company wasreaching higher levels of prosperity he faced demands for unions at Virgin. He appeared uninvited at a key meeting, and broke down in tears in front of his staff, sobbing: "We're all one family." It was either clever manipulation or genuine grief.

The outcome was that Virgin remains free of unions. Mr Blair's New Labour, as he told the TUC in Brighton, will not present Mr Branson with any unionisation demands .

One of Mr Branson's fortes is being photographed alongside anything or anyone that can publicise his company. However, his role as Mrs Thatcher's favourite wealth creator and the free entrepreneurial spirit of UK plc is a dominant Branson image. Frequent photographs alongside the then prime minister cast him almost as an unelected minister.

In 1986, Mr Branson was chosen to head what the Tories wanted to call the National Environmental Work Scheme. The project, combining work experience with a anti-litter campaign, became UK 2000. Despite corporate denials, it was a highly political post. Only when he became disenchanted with the press dubbing him "Sir Litter" did he eventually quietly leave.

The core of Virgin's businesses are all highly regulated industries. Critical to their success is the Government's position: Virgin's airline needs the Civil Aviation Authority to give it routes at Heathrow; radio franchises require succesful lobbying; plans to run a Channel tunnel train depend on market forces and government goodwill. Richard Branson is the master of Whitehall and City diplomacy.

"In a sense, Branson sits well with Tony Blair," said Tim Jackson. "Richard casts himself as opponent of the Establishment, while taking advantage of very well-placed connections."

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