Profile: Archie Norman: Wunderkind the Tories loved to hate

He turned round Asda's fortunes and made millions again last week, but Conservatives have snubbed the man William Hague brought in to revamp the party

Sunday 07 November 1999 00:02

The City has never known a day like it. Shares in an obscure handbag company rose by 1,000 per cent last Wednesday in the biggest speculative frenzy since the South Sea Bubble. Simply by attaching his name to the previously unheard of Knutsford plc, Archie Norman sent dealers into an ecstasy of anticipation. As rumours swirled around the Square Mile about his future masterplan, Norman made himself, on paper, a cool pounds 37m within hours.

The talk was of daring takeover bids for the struggling giants of the high street, from Marks & Spencers to Debenhams and BhS. The McKinsey man with the Midas touch - and former chief executive of the Tory party - was literally "back in business" after a brief and unhappy sojourn in the weird world of Westminster. And didn't the City just love him for it?

Two miles upriver in SW1, meanwhile, you could hear a collective Tory sigh of relief. Many viewed the events on the stock market as signalling the departure of a business wunderkind who had no business with politics. The more the share price rose, the lower the political stock of the Asda boss fell among his critics, who dismissed the Conservative spokesman for Europe as a "write-off". Protestations from Tory HQ that 45-year-old Norman was staying on for the duration fell largely on deaf ears, failing to dispel the fervently held belief in Westminster that businessmen and politics are about as compatible as graffiti artists and Van Goghs.

Yet his political career began so promisingly. He won the safe seat of Tunbridge Wells in 1997 at his first attempt, replacing the high Tory patrician and former Northern Ireland secretary Sir Paddy Mayhew. The two men could not be more different. Mayhew, a natural amateur, with a charm that belies his hauteur; Norman the hard-faced supermarket whizzkid, dubbed a humourless and naive android by his enemies.

But Norman was valued for his business acumen and populist touch by the new Conservative leader William Hague - once his protege at McKinsey management consultants, where Norman became the youngest ever partner in the early Eighties. (Both favour the crisp plain white shirts beloved by McKinsey men as well as their trademark mid-Atlantic consultancy jargon.) As Tory chief executive, he was put behind the wheel of party modernisation, using the McKinsey textbook mix of hardline rationalisation and hierarchy dismantling.

Norman had already rescued one British institution - Asda - from ruin in the early 1990s; surely now he could wave his magic wand at the floundering Tory party with the same effect. If it could work for down-at-heel grocers it could work for anything. But whereas his "no jacket" rule, dress down Fridays and black bag Mondays - when staff were exhorted to clear their desk of all papers to encourage clear thinking - were tolerated at Asda supermarkets, they were fiercely resented at Westminster, where eccentricity is still regarded as an art form.

At Asda, Norman had worn a badge declaring "Archie, happy to help" and instructed staff to wear baseball caps when they were thinking to avoid being disturbed. Office walls were knocked down to create open-plan spaces; staff were addressed as colleagues or by first name, while dissenters and hundreds more were made redundant. And he pulled off a now celebrated turnaround in Asda's fortunes, earning a golden reputation among the City's money men.

Last month, he made another pounds 5.7m by cashing in his shares in Asda, now hitched to Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailing group, in a groundbreaking deal which has had other supermarket bosses quaking in the aisles. In a breathtaking act of cold betrayal, he left it to the 11th hour to inform his former boss, Sir Geoff Mulcahy of Kingfisher, with whom he had spent many months planning a merger, that "we have a little problem". He had in fact abandoned him in favour of a better bet with Wal-Mart.

But his success as a businessman only underlines his failure as a politician, and it's not just down to his fumbling appearances on the floor of the House of Commons, among the worst of this Parliament according to the aficionados. Tory MPs guffawed with delight some time ago when the Speaker cut Norman off after he failed to deliver a coherent question to Tony Blair. But worse than that, his blatant lack of understanding of the workings of a political party speaks volumes about the British boardroom no longer being composed of the Tory party at work, just as the Church of England has ceased to represent the party at prayer.

He has been accused of "actively disliking the Conservative Party" and could scarcely conceal his impatience with the countless egos who opposed his agenda for change, outraged by his comparison of constituency parties to McDonald's franchises. One glance at Central Office, the story goes, left the MP for Tunbridge Wells disgusted and the feeling, for many at least, was mutual.

The cold, impatient manner of a modern chief executive, accustomed to getting his own way at a click of the fingers, alienated the army of volunteers who keep the wheels of the Tory party oiled and who are more used to the pers0uasive charms of a Michael Ancram or Peter Brooke. Sacking a third of the workforce at Central Office in London's Smith Square certainly left the place leaner and almost certainly fitter - but detractors say the bloodletting was unnecessarily cruel. He was, for instance, instrumental in the defenestration at dawn of the likeable Gregor Mackay as Hague's press secretary and the hiring of the bold and brassy Amanda Platell in his place.

His radical "voter-friendly" plans to adapt or drop the familiar Conservative torch logo, the possible abandonment of the sacred Tory blue and the mooting of the positively Mandelsonian tag of "Modern Conservatives", meanwhile, sent senior Tory traditionalists into apoplexy. "I wouldn't tell you how to run a supermarket," the former Tory chairman Lord Parkinson once snapped at him, before remarking to others: "Just because the Asda check-out girls smile at him, he thinks he's got the common touch."

Attempts to mix business and politics have met with a frosty response outside Westminster, too. His call to last year's CBI conference to join a new alliance against Labour drew a swift slap down from the CBI president, Sir Clive Thompson: "We are not the business wing of the Labour Party and are not a substitute for Her Majesty's Opposition. We look forward to the Tory party taking over that role."

Soon, Norman was being blamed for practically anything that disturbed the equilibrium of an exhausted, edgy, but deeply conser- vative party, particularly if it had a McKinseyist touch to it. Norman fiercely denied that Hague's seaside "bonding" sessions were his idea but he got most of the blame anyway. Critics also suspected his handprints to be all over the second-hand, five foot-long kitchen table which appeared outside the lifts at Central Office to remind party hacks that they should be focusing on "bread and butter issues". "A grisly McKinsey-type gimmick," moaned one insider.

The final straw came when Norman alienated an increasingly sullen audience of local party chairmen during a Q&A session; in his brusque manner he ended with the unfortunate quip: "We'll have to get a different audience next year." Norman moved out of Central Office in May last year amid rumours - vigorously denied by party spokesmen - that Hague thought his former boss had become just too bossy. But Norman made it clear that he thought rewards were due for his hard work and for his role in running Hague's leadership campaign. Disillusion set in over last winter as he remained firmly locked outside Hague's "A" team, although he denied reports at Christmas that he intended to stand down at the next election.

He has never made any secret, however, of his intention of returning to business if his political career failed. In the June reshuffle he was once again passed over for promotion to the Shadow Cabinet, having to make do with the second-tier job of Conservative spokesman for Europe, where he has been consistently overshadowed by his old friend and Asda colleague Francis Maude, who is shadow chancellor.

"It is difficult for him outside the top team, but he did a good job responding to Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine and the Britain-in-Europe campaign. He was broadcasting all day on that one and did well. While he has problems in the House, broadcasters like him as he is a name and one of the best-known businessmen in the country," said one Tory insider, keen to damp down speculation over Norman's departure.

But a friend of his points out: "As a businessman Archie is in total control, but with the Tories his life is a long bout of frustration and he's made absolutely no impact as an MP. So it wouldn't surprise me if he gave up his Tunbridge Wells seat and returned to business." Once a cocky young man who had never tasted failure, Norman has already sounded a reflective note on the travails of a businessman at Westminster. "I am the only FTSE 100 chairman ever to sit in the House of Commons. I would like to think I'm pioneering. But I'm afraid I suspect I am the last of a dying breed."

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