Stars in their eyes: Why is the Government allowing celebrities into the seats of power?

Mary Portas is the latest television personality to be recruited by government – but politics is too important to be treated like a reality show, argues John Walsh

Friday 20 May 2011 00:00

Town planners all over the nation are shredding their fingernails and waking in a muck sweat at 4am. Local authority committee-sitters are wearing the doomed look of schoolboys about to be thrashed by the headmaster. Retailers with old-fashioned ideas about design and presentation are considering taking the next few months off. For a kind of Nemesis is heading their way. Mary Portas has been signed up by the Government to lead a review on "the future of the high street".

You know Ms Portas: the scourge of sloppy shop owners, the Torquemada of truculent till assistants, Boadicea in a flame-hued power-bob, Trinny and Susannah frighteningly conjoined in black tights. With her flashing eyes, her determined chin and razor-slash of lipstick, she has confronted inept and clueless retailers, told them where they've gone wrong in failing to modernise the mannequins or tart up the wallpaper, then given their dismal premises a brisk makeover and watched their profits soar. She has sometimes accompanied this helpful therapy by unusual methods of client management: such as fuming, yelling and ramming her face up against the noses of back-sliders until they audibly quake with fright and either wet themselves or agree that yes, teal-and-magnolia might well be the right design solution for the stockroom.

Is she the right woman to make high streets "more prosperous and diverse", as the Government wants? Someone to halt the death of independent shops, the disastrous closure of chains (only this week, Mothercare announced the end of 100 outlets), the decline of music and book shops, the homogenisation of town centres so that the middle of Chichester resembles, not just the middle of Richmond, but the middle of Antwerp? Can she revivify the moribund shopping centre?

The answer is: nobody has the faintest idea. Ms Portas is famous for two things. She transformed Harvey Nichols from a rather dreary Knightsbridge frock shop into a palace of dazzling chic, mostly by transforming their window displays into works of art (and employing artists to do so), and opening a restaurant upstairs. And she's a whiz at shop design and its more pretentious big brother, brand re-thinking. There's no evidence, however, that she has a clue about larger questions of how to fight supermarkets who undercut your prices, how to combat the threat of online shopping, and how to help small independent shops afford the vast rents of prime retail sites.

She may have a head full of ideas – and a lexicon of abuse to hurl at local bigwigs who stand in her way – but she doesn't obviously have the credentials. What she has, however, is celebrity credibility and, in the modern political world, that counts for a lot more than piffling considerations of suitability. Like Gordon Ramsay bawling out the owner of a Moss Side takeaway, she will be seen to be Getting Things Done, for a Government that likes energy, balls, ass-kicking. And she is the latest in a squad of telegenic, populist, crowd-pleasing superheroes, spawned by confrontational or reality TV, whose on-screen bullying looks, to Government eyes, like "effectiveness".

Alan Sugar is the most egregious example so far. On 5 June, 2009, during a Cabinet reshuffle, it was revealed that Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, had offered the irascible businessman a seat in the House of Lords (as Baron Sugar of Clapton in the London Borough of Hackney) as the Government's new "Enterprise Champion". It sounded great. "Champion" indeed – as if Sugar would regularly reward any evidence of British entrepreneurs who actually got somewhere. Wires had been crossed, through. Two days later, Sugar issued a counter-proclamation saying that, nah, it wasn't a political appointment, that he wouldn't be joining the Government and that all he intended to do was "help" businesses in some unspecified way.

Two years later, there's little evidence that Lord Sugar has done anything proactive to promote new ideas in the business community (though he may have helped companies on the quiet – he is a noted philanthropist). Some would say his work was done back in June, when Mr Brown could say: "Look! – we've signed up the country's most famous, most recognisable and most reliably effective businessman!" No more was needed for this display of empty celebrity shoulder-rubbing.

In 2009, Sugar didn't seem exactly a superstar of British business. His glory days of selling cheap Amstrad computers to half the country were behind him. He'd created no lasting industry; most of his £800m fortune was in property. His judgement had proved rather faulty: his announcement in February 2005 that the iPod would be "dead, finished, gone, kaput" by Christmas was named one of the 10 worst technology predictions ever. But Brown knew the country loved watching him take mouthy idiots to task in The Apprentice each week, and reasoned that his presence in Government might work as a lightning conductor for criticism – and might keep his colleagues sharp. Unfortunately, Lord Sugar backed away from the corridors of power. Perhaps he was worried about keeping his end up when confronting a score of Cabinet smart-alecks with PPE degrees from Oxbridge.

Jamie Oliver's elevation to a political role was a curious affair, in that it was generated by a celebrity rather than by his political masters. In 2005, he led a TV campaign to eliminate junk food from the lunchboxes of the nation's children, and introduce them to the delights of nutritional nosh. A statistic thrown up by the programme was that some schools in south-east London spent less than 50p per child's meal. Suddenly, it was an issue about economics rather than a lot of bourgeois tut-tutting about high-salt and sugar snacks shaped like birds.

When Oliver threatened to deliver a petition of 271,000 names in support of his Feed Me Better campaign, the Government caved in. Tony Blair wrote a piece in the Sunday papers, promising to set up a School Food Trust, earmarked £280m for better ingredients – and offered the Naked Chef an "advisory role" telling the Government about the progress of school meals.

The PM tried to point out, in his article, that the school meals issue had not been single-handedly invented by Jamie bloody Oliver, that the Government had been about to deal with it "for some time" – but he recognised the futility of halting a media juggernaut.

Did he actually need to appoint Jamie as an "adviser" on school meals? Presumably any number of competent civil servants from the Department of Education could have been asked to monitor the proliferation of corn-based snacks in schools. But how much better to sign up the lisping gastronome (and the country's bestselling writer) as if he were in daily intercourse with New Labour high command?

Oliver's school meals campaign was a success, but it's unclear whether he has an advisory role with the new Government. Being brought into the power-fold evidently gave him a taste for power, though. In 2008, he published The Ministry of Food, a collection of recipes that looked back to the creation of the original Ministry during the war. Has he been dreaming of running a modern government department all his own?

The Hon Kirstie Allsopp, the baron's daughter who presents Location, Location, Location and its telly offspring, hasn't yet been offered a peerage like Lord Sugar, but it was a close thing last year. Rumours spread that, if the Tories won the election in May, she would be a shoo-in for the Lords. For she had been advising the party – and especially David Cameron, her near neighbour in north Kensington – on housing issues for two years.

Ms Allsopp, of course, doesn't just know about the ups and downs of the housing market. She is the perfect avatar of the Conservative wife as home-maker. Kirsty's Homemade Home, aired on Channel 4 in April last year, showed viewers who'd been stung by the housing downswing how to decorate their homes on a budget, by foraging in scrapyards, hunting for bargains, making their own soft furnishings and finding discarded rugs and lampshades in skips. She is a walking embodiment of thrift, enterprise, husbandry and common sense – qualities once praised by Mrs Thatcher, although the pneumatic Ms Allsopp is easier on the eye than the Iron Lady.

When Kirstie harangues MP in print for claiming their patio heaters on expenses ("You should eat inside if it's cold"); when, despite her considerable wealth, she claims, "I am a pram expert and a potato peeler expert. I know exactly how much it should all cost," you can see why they wanted to make her one of their "advisers". "Look!," you can hear them telling the electorate. "Kirstie off the telly! The most financially sensible woman in the UK! And she was once voted the 99th sexist woman in the world! And she's ours."

Also hauled aboard, a month after the election last year, was Martha Lane Fox, founder of and the Lucky Voice karaoke chain. David Cameron appointed her "UK Digital Champion" in June 2010, with the task of "encouraging as many people as possible to go online" and "challenging" the Government to make more efficient use of online services. The appointment was flagged as a contribution to the building of the "Big Society," but the society the Tories craved was really Ms Fox's own.

Apart from being an astute businesswoman, she's a famous champion of worthy causes – charities to help educate young girls in Africa, legal-action charities to spring inmates from Guantánamo Bay. Anything of which she is the "champion" must, by extension, be worthwhile. While any number of digital-literate thinkers and inventors could have been empowered to hurl the nation into a frenzy of online transaction, there was only one of whom the Cabinet Office could say: "It's the dot-com queen! She survived when the online bubble burst! She was in a car crash and survived that! She's practically a saint! If I go online a bit more, I could be indestructible too!"

We have not yet gone down the American route of voting actors into power (Reagan, Eastwood, Schwarze- negger) because we feel reassured by their craggily familiar physiognomies. But we seem to have entered a curious world in which people who are famous for their media personae – in business, on TV or, especially, both – are crowding on to the public-service stage. In the past few years, Government "advisers" on enterprise, school food, digital communication, housing and high street shops, almost all drawn from the small screen, have begun to form a kind of celebrity mini-cabinet. They're descendents of the "tsars" – those single-issue experts given special powers of investigation by New Labour – but, unlike the tsars, are in no danger of being fired from their advisory posts for incompetence, because their function is almost entirely decorative (who will be brave enough to approach Lord Sugar, to tell him to come up with some results or else?) They exist almost entirely to be seen as the Government's famous friends, visible allies, guaranteed supporters, pledged mates.

Soon we will see Anne Robinson, in her Watchdog rather than her Weakest Link incarnation, being brought in to advise the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills about absconding embezzlers, just so they can get her name on board. Soon, we shall see Kim and Aggie, the Marigold-gloved harridans from How Clean Is Your House? being asked to troubleshoot on hygiene issues at the Department of Health. The resulting policy initiatives may not be terribly interesting or intellectually bracing. But reaching them would make a great TV show.

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