Margareta Pagano: Why has Sir Alan been hired as 'enterprise tsar'?

My list of business people to advise companies would not include Sugar
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The Independent Online

When Sir Alan Sugar turned up at Downing Street last week in his Rolls Royce, a polite newspaper photographer (they do exist) asked him what was the purpose of his visit. Sir Alan's reported response was: "It's none of your business."

Twenty-four hours later came the news that Sir Alan – star of The Apprentice, which had its grand finale last night – was to be handed a peerage and had agreed to become an "enterprise tsar" for Labour. Right then, Sir Alan, now it is our business.

Sir Alan might enjoy huge popular affection and move in circles that embrace both the prime minister and such giants of TV celebrity as Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't hold his business credentials up to the light.

His relations with Morgan go back to when Sir Alan had a column on the Daily Mirror, which at the time was edited by the man who would later make it very big on TV. (It was buying shares in Sugar's Viglen company which got Morgan into such hot water in the so-called City Slickers scandal, although it should be made clear that Sugar had no involvement in the affair).

What of Sugar's BBC connections? How does his new position sit with his role on The Apprentice? Is there a precedent for a Labour peer presenting such a show, and can we really expect the BBC to examine his business record?

Andrew Marr had a go at questioning Sir Alan on his TV show yesterday, but the man who gave us "You're fired!" was quick to deflect the problem by telling Marr that there were no conflicts because he is a government adviser, not a policy-maker. But in that case I wonder why he needed to be elevated to the Lords to do this role?

Some of his new comrades in the Lords are already asking questions – not just about his track record, but about his qualifications for offering up wisdom to bankers and builders. According to the most recent Sunday Times Rich List, Sir Alan's fortune is down by £100m to £730m. Most of his business today is in property – the Amstrad business that he is most famous for having built up was sold for £125m to BSkyB two years ago.

It's surely legitimate to ask whether Sir Alan could really hack it in mass-market electronics, and personally I've yet to get through a full episode of The Apprentice, a show which some business people reportedly despair of because it's such an unrealistic portrayal of what goes on in that world.

When I met Sir Alan years ago, he was as gruff and pompous then as he is now, clearly someone who reserves his charm for the powerful. But, more important, I believe that any list of the top thousand or so British businessmen or women who could do this job would not include Sir Alan. If the Prime Minister was serious about improving Britain's enterprise culture, his first call would have been to Sir John Rose, the chief executive of Rolls-Royce, who works tirelessly to promote serious innovation in the engineering and manufacturing sector of our society.

More pertinently, Sir John knows a thing or two about training real apprentices and graduates, employing as he does thousands of them every year at its Derby factory. In retail there is Kate Swann at WH Smith who has turned it in to a fine business, while at John Lewis there is chairman Charles Mayfield, and at least half a dozen managers below him, who could have been perfect to be tsar – if, of course, we really need such a gimmick.

I could name many more but the quality of these people shows how puzzling it is to have Sugar advising companies what to do. It is an insult to the business community to expect them to accept this man as their delegate in this debate: a debate that is more critical than ever to the UK economy and the future of our young.

His macho reputation is not the point, and we will be following the government spin-doctors up a blind alley if we waste time on that part of his personality. He isn't going to change irrespective of the fact that four of the last five in this season's Apprentice were women, and both of last night's finalists.

What do the people who allow themselves to be patronised by him on his TV show really think of him? The important thing is that no top businessman or woman I know will take him seriously. His appointment is the desperate act of a desperate prime minister, and it is surely time for Gordon's peers show to end.

Margareta Pagano is business editor of 'The Independent on Sunday'