Why shouldn't our business leaders be politicians too?

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When Archie Norman woke up yesterday morning, the chief executive of Asda, who has been selected as a Tory candidate, apparently asked himself: "What on earth have I done?" He would have been forgiven also for asking: "Why aren't other successful businessmen doing the same thing?"

The answer might lie with the relatively few who have. In truth, they have not had an easy time once they traded in their lucrative chairmanships for seats in the Commons or the Lords. Since Lord Nolan reported on MPs' activities, they have fallen under fierce scrutiny. Even before that, sacrifices proved too great for some. Lord Gowrie, a leading player in the auction world, gave up his political position under Margaret Thatcher because, he said, he could not live on an MP's salary of pounds 30,000.

For 200 years there has been a traffic between business success and political success on both sides of the benches. For decades, some maintained the most lavish lifestyles. Among the most prominent was Lord Beaverbrook, who made a fortune in cement and then newspapers. His most prominent government post was in Churchill's War Cabinet as aircraft-production minister.

Other businessmen found the world of politics did not want to accept them and their political aspirations foundered. Robert Maxwell stood as a Labour candidate after he established his publishing empire in the 1950s but his ego was too big even for Parliament.

For the current generation of millionaire MPs the draw of Parliament is still not straightforward, aside from the obvious attractions of more power and influence. However, it has still proved strong enough for Geoffrey Robinson, former head of Jaguar, and a Labour backbencher and owner of the New Statesman who entertained Tony Blair and his family at his home in Tuscany this summer.

Angela Knight, the economics minister, ran her own successful chemical- engineering company before entering politics. It was good preparation: "You can't come out of engineering and be a fragile flower."

Among the wealthiest figures on the political stage is Sir James Goldsmith, who started developing his political and economic views a decade ago before setting up the Referendum Party. Michael Heseltine, Deputy Prime Minister, entered politics after establishing a publishing company that made him a millionaire.

Mr Norman, credited with breathing life back into Asda, has joined a select group of millionaires who put their power in the City on hold for a place in Parliament. As he left for a weekend in Italy yesterday, he had still not explained the lure of politics, for which he will take a sizeable pay cut.

Instead Mr Norman, 42, who will stand for the safe seat of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, enthused on why businessmen who have run corporations are so well qualified to help run the country. "It's very unusual to find a successful businessman going into politics now. I think it's a pity because Parliament needs to have people who have experience of the real world of work. Most of my career has been spent in business, where I have spoken with shoppers, housewives and staff. I think I have got an experience of the real world." The timing of his switch to politics is a tad surprising. He has had his name on the list of potential Tory candidates for 15 years but has chosen to allow it to go forward only at one of the most precarious periods for the Conservative Party. If the Conservatives do hold on to power, he is at least destined for a top job and is expected to become a minister.