Parliament has never seen so many entrepreneurs. But why are they all Tories? The worlds of commerce and the Commons are not so far apart, Josh Spero finds
DEEP THROAT’S PARKING-LOT exhortation to Bob Woodward to ‘follow the money’ has long established itself as shorthand for the pursuit of corruption in politics, but in the modern Parliament of the United Kingdom it has come to mean something altogether different. The otherwise-indecisive election of May 2010 saw one trend emerge strongly: a surprising number of those new members now sitting on the Government benches are successful entrepreneurs, and it is following the money they have made that has brought them into politics.
Thirty-three new Tory MPs (out of 143) had a business background, according to The Elected Class of 2010, a report by Madano Partnership. Labour, by contrast, has 56 new MPs, none of whom had business backgrounds. They span all walks of life, blowing grey-haired, retired-colonel, London-clubbable stereotypes apart: men, women, black, white, gay, straight, from the North or from the South, from entrepreneurial families or with no evident enterprise in the genes.
What binds them is that they have started businesses, seen them grow, developed a passion for politics and felt that, yes, it’s something they could do well, bringing some dynamism and dash to Westminster. They are transmuting the power of business into the business of power.
Margot James, who defeated the Labour incumbent for the seat of Stourbridge in Birmingham, is one of these entrepreneurs. James grew up with entrepreneurialism, hearing her father talk at the dinner table about his haulage and property business.
‘He loved it — he lived and breathed it. I was fortunate growing up in a household where my father was an excellent business role model, who started a business from scratch and built it up over many years. He never gave you the impression that it was too much of a slog.’ Her parents had grown up in the Depression and knew real poverty and the disposability of the employee, and the spirit this engendered transferred to the next generation, albeit in happier circumstances.
James, driving back to her constituency for the weekend as we talk, says she inherited a ‘can-do’ attitude and always intended to start her own business, rejecting her father’s offers to buy a company for her and freelancing for a consultancy that worked with a medicine-manufacturing subsidiary of Boots. When she took an assignment in the US, she spotted how much more sophisticated their medical marketing was and decided to start her own company here. Shire Health, a health and pharmaceutical communications company, was sold to WPP in 1999.
The Conservatives’ first lesbian MP, emphasising the diversity within its entrepreneurial cadre, James held a fundraiser in London in 2009 at which David Cameron apologised for the Thatcherite Section 28, which barred the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools.
Nadhim Zahawi, now MP for Stratford-on-Avon and the co-founder of internet-era pollsters YouGov, has a similar story. He and his parents arrived in England as Iraqi Kurdish refugees; his father had £200 in his pocket but a Rolodex of contacts he could work. ‘He made his own money here,’ says Zahawi, ‘and lost a lot of money in later life. We went through difficult times when I was at university,’ including losing the family home after an investment in a supersonic air digger. (His father eventually made it all back when he helped an American company gain a contract for privatising Lithuania’s energy sector.)
Zahawi describes dinners at home like pitches in Dragons’ Den, with him and his sister and his parents throwing out ideas for businesses that might work. ‘I knew I would want to start something up,’ he says confidently. He, too, experienced successes and failures, joining Jonathan Sieff and Peter Dubens out of university as a marketeer in their clothes-making business (it sold 3.5 million colour-changing T-shirts in eighteen months), but also founding a company that manufactured Teletubbies merchandise where he forgot to keep his eye on the margin.
YouGov developed from his association with Stephan Shakespeare on the doomed Archer-for-Mayor campaign and was born in a greasy spoon near the Barbican. They’d had their fill of ‘cumbersome and slow’ consumer research and sought to capitalise on the internet. Two weeks after they started YouGov in 2000, the tech bubble popped, all their backers but one pulled out and they had to remortgage their houses. YouGov floated on AIM in 2005.
Against a theory of genetic entrepreneurialism stands Nigel Adams, the new MP for Selby and Ainsty in Yorkshire. ‘My mother was a cleaner and my father was a school caretaker, but they’d always instilled in me a belief that you don’t have to accept your lot in life and that you must strive to achieve better things. They always wanted better things for me,’ he says as we sit in the café in Portcullis House near the rented trees and coffee-breaking parliamentarians.
Whereas James went to the LSE and Zahawi to UCL, Adams was kicked out of sixth form (‘“You’re enjoying yourself too much,” the head of sixth form said’) and didn’t go to university — ‘but it was probably one of the best things that happened to me, because that meant I had to go out and try and get a job.’ Without experience or qualifications beyond O-levels, he started a business selling advertising on estate agents’ folders in 1984, deep in the recession. It was enough experience to win him an advertising-sales job in London that he found on Ceefax. ‘I moved to London with my bin-liner full of clothes, and that was me on my way,’ he offers cheerfully.
Ten years later, the American company he was then working for closed down its UK operations, and Adams says it was the experience of redundancy (unlike James, in his own generation) that convinced him that, one day, he was going to start another business. After working for a telecommunications products and services company spawned by Mrs Thatcher’s privatisation of BT, he quit, aged 26, once again in the middle of a recession, and with his parents’ £5,000 life savings and a £20-a-week grant, he began his own company selling telecoms equipment. In 1999, when he sold the business, it was turning over £4 million a year and had 40 staff.
There are plenty of other Tory MPs, both new boys and old hands and all part of a kaleidoscope of characters, who have been entrepreneurs: Adam Afriyie, the first black Conservative MP, founded an IT support services company; Alan Duncan succeeded in oil and gas consultancy and became the Tories’ first openly gay MP; Grant Shapps, tipped as a future leader but for now minister of state for housing and planning, set up a design and printing company when he was 22; Michael Fabricant, a Government whip, was co-founder of an international broadcast manufacturing and management group that had clients in 48 countries.
THE PROCESS OF becoming an MP is lengthy, time-consuming, all-consuming, even for those on Cameron’s storied A-list of candidates. (After our interview, Adams proudly says that he was the first non-A-list candidate to be selected for the 2010 election.) Even — or especially — before you are elected, during the selection stage and the long campaign before the dissolution of Parliament and the short campaign after it, the benefits of entrepreneurialism intersect with the vicissitudes of politics.
Zahawi, a marketeer by nature according to Sieff and Dubens, talks about self-presentation and defining yourself, your interests and concerns: ‘You need to take up issues and work out what your message is going to be. If you’re launching a start-up, you need to work out how you’re going to cut through the noise and get people to notice you.’ Arriving in Stratford-on-Avon, a safe Tory seat once John Profumo’s, as the candidate on 19 February, Zahawi had less than three months to cut through the noise.
It takes far longer than three months, of course, to become an MP, and this is where one of the key advantages of cashed-out entrepreneurs emerges: they can afford the time. ‘During the long haul of being a candidate — in my case four years and a couple of years on a seat before then — you’ve got to keep yourself afloat,’ says Adams. ‘I know a lot of people are struggling, I know a lot of MPs who are skint. There’s a lot of people who hadn’t realised the difficulty being a candidate for the long term is. I know a Member who’s had to remortgage his house to afford to be a candidate. Now that takes some commitment. I can understand people remortgaging to run a business, but not for a job.’
James concurs and elaborates, saying ‘there’s no doubt’ that giving up her job a year before the election helped her. ‘I think you can be a candidate and have a full-time job if you’re very determined, but if you have family commitments, it must be impossible.’ It would be ‘foolish or naïve’ to deny that some private resources are helpful, says Zahawi, but he takes pains to stress that fighting an election is not in itself ruinously expensive (the total limit on spending is approximately £35,000), and dreads the idea that we would return to a 19th-century Parliament where candidates could buy boroughs.
(Many MPs work as local councillors early in their political careers — Zahawi was one from 1994 to 2006 in Wandsworth, James from 2006 to 2008 in Kensington and Chelsea — but this involves a far smaller element of campaigning and you can continue your job once elected.)
It seems that becoming a businessman for the sake of business and then going into politics is not the only way to do it. In an interview in his office at Haymarket, the magazine publishers, Michael Heseltine repeats some advice given to Peter Walker, whose tribute he is about to pay at a memorial service, by Leopold Amery, the journalist and MP, to make himself financially independent so he could go into politics. Here, the end necessitates the means. The money came in useful during spells on the back benches, he says: ‘In order to survive as frontline politicians neither of us in those years were dependent on trying to earn money and thus having a full-time job.’
Dr Tim Bale, professor of politics at the University of Sussex and author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron (newly out in paperback), thinks that there is nothing new in Tory candidates making their money before seeking election: ‘There’s actually a very long tradition in the Tory Party of would-be MPs securing their financial future before seeking a seat, although nowadays that’s arguably easier to do — for good or ill — by specialising in banking or corporate law than building up your own business.’ The Madano Partnership study shows that nineteen new Tory MPs have a financial services background, which is still fewer than have a business background, although a further 23 were in consultancy and twenty in the law, both profitable pursuits.
THE REPUTATION OF the Conservative Party as the party of business was a powerful source of allure to all of these. James, Adams and Zahawi had seen the battles of unionised, militant Labour against Tory free-marketeers, culminating in events like the miners’ strike and the privatisation of more than 40 national industries: British Gas, Jaguar, British Airways, Rolls-Royce, British Steel.
Although Blair by 1997 had gone a long way towards banishing Labour’s anti-business rhetoric and reputation, when Adams (1992) and Zahawi (1985) joined the party, they had already started businesses (or been with start-ups) and had lived through Labour’s unpalatable years. Adams eagerly admits that he joined the party in fear of Neil Kinnock. Nevertheless, for James it was by no means clear-cut that she would be a Conservative politician: she had joined the party in 1975, but quit in 1990 after the defenestration of Mrs Thatcher and spent the Nineties ‘fed up’ with the Tories; she did not rejoin until 2004.
Dr Bale says that the Tories’ modern pro-business stance developed in response to a new enemy, socialism: ‘The Conservative Party as we know it today is the result of the commercial and industrial and the landowning elites getting together to fight a common enemy — a socialism founded on the interests of the labour movement and intent on redistribution and expanding the role of the state, both through public ownership and through tax and spend.’ Previously, the Conservative Party was ‘ambivalent’ about capitalism, whereas the Liberals were in favour of free trade.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries have fostered a resurgence of entrepreneurs in the party, although there has always been a steady stream: ‘You have to go back some way to find Conservative Prime Ministers, notably Bonar Law and Baldwin, who had successful careers in the manufacturing industry before going into politics. Those who came after them were, generally speaking, professional politicians, although Macmillan did work for the family’s publishing firm so knew a thing or two about running a successful firm.’ Michael Heseltine and the late Peter Walker, co-founder of Slater Walker, are prominent in an earlier generation of parliamentarians, as are John Wakeham and David Young.
Lord Heseltine has recently accepted a new role in Government, helping regional development by evaluating bids submitted to the Regional Growth Fund by businesses, which puts him at the heart of sustaining, supporting and increasing enterprise throughout Britain. Given his experience as the founder of a property business and then of Haymarket, which has made him hundreds of millions of pounds, a business portfolio seems perfectly apt.
ONCE THE RETURNING officer has declared you the winner, there is no period of grace for the new MP. ‘Your constituents won’t wait for you,’ says Zahawi. ‘I got an avalanche of emails on 7 May.’ He then draws a picture of life in a nascent Parliament that bears striking resemblances to the early days of a start-up company: ‘Because the old Government is moving out of its offices and they’re being reassigned, you don’t have an office. We had to hot-desk for several weeks. Your first priority is to get your team together, get them started so that the machine works.’
You then need to re-establish yourself, just as you had to do as a candidate: ‘You’ve got to focus. You can’t do too many things. What are you going to be famous for in this place? You’ve got to set out your stall.’ You need to make your grasp of your market evident, because ‘this place respects people who are credible or knowledgeable about a particular issue or department.’ If a lot of these phrases sound like entrepreneurial buzz words, it succinctly highlights the similarities.
An MP can often use the field they have come from to find their focus: James talks of her work on health bills and in understanding markets, while Zahawi was elected to the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee. They all have a concern with legislation and red tape about employees, whether European directives from on high or policy being brewed in Number 10. Since this recovery — when it emerges — will be predicated on a recovery in the private sector, their experience is only intensified in utility. Zahawi sees it widely, considering the very nature of politics to be that of business: ‘Every single MP is a businessman,’ he says. ‘We’re all small enterprises for our constituents.’
One aspect that each MP highlights is the empathy that an entrepreneurial past brings — not because entrepreneurs are necessarily wonderfully caring individuals (experience says otherwise), but because when a constituent is sitting in front of them, having trouble with bureaucracy or living hand-to-mouth (a phrase Adams uses to describe his early days in business), or even trying to start their own business, the entrepreneur-MP knows exactly what that is like.
Adams speaks of ‘life experience’ as a quality most likely to instil confidence in a constituent, but sees the life of the entrepreneur as particularly relevant: ‘I know what it’s like to start with and have nothing. I know what it’s like to have been made redundant. I know what it’s like to go home and tell your family you’ve lost your job. Similarly, I know what it’s like to create something, I know what it’s like to build something and have some success and create jobs.’ When faced with a constituent in trouble, the entrepreneur-MP can say, truthfully, ‘I know how that feels’ and, more to the point, ‘I know what you can do.’
There is also the headstrong nature of the entrepreneur when faced with the labyrinthine process that entangles the developed political system: ‘I’ve learnt in the seven months I’ve been here,’ says Adams, ‘you can genuinely make a difference, because if you’re an entrepreneur you tend to be a doer. You’ve got get up and go. When someone puts up a wall in front of you, an entrepreneur will knock it over, because he knows that the other side is the result he or she wants. A civil servant will sit there for six months and negotiate with the wall.’
He also warns against the dominance of the accountant or the consultant, stifling the creativity of the entrepreneur. Similarly, Zahawi talks about the entrepreneur who likes ‘disrupting the marketplace’; this may be somewhat easier in business than in politics, but it does not prevent the attempt.
Lord Heseltine has seen Parliament from the front and back benches, and says that his entrepreneurial experience came in much more useful as a minister (Environment, 1979-83; Defence, 1983-86): ‘Certainly the experience that I’d had in running a business was to me extremely valuable as an insight into what management is about, how you set priorities, how you take decisions, how you monitor results — all these things that are A, B and C to people in the private sector. In Peter Walker’s case, again, he was the first of the professional managers of a large government department, and very impressive he was, too.’
In contrast to Adams, he seems aghast at the idea of knocking down walls: ‘The art of persuasion is central, so the idea that you can get in there and thump someone and crash through — you wouldn’t do it once.’ Nevertheless, ‘rearguard actions’ by civil servants to frustrate ministerial decisions can be easily overcome by private sector disciplines, he says.
Mark Field, MP for the entrepreneurs of the Cities of London and Westminster, founded a publishing business at university and another one after a career in the law, but does not see many of the similarities between politics and business that others mention: ‘They’re quite separate – they’re very practical skills [for entrepreneurs]. One of the difficulties of public sector life is bureaucracy, whereas as an entrepreneur you make the rules as you go along. You can make a fundamental difference.’
Field seems even a little disgusted by the staid ways of Parliament, which, he says, led to the expenses scandal: ‘There’s an inertia in the political world. It was completely foreseeable. If there had been more [businessmen] the scandal would never have happened because it was totally unsustainable. They’re slightly more independent-minded.’ This should be construed not as an argument against entrepreneurs going into politics, but as one for the infusion of energy and ideas they can bring.
ADAMS ENCOURAGES OTHER entrepreneurs — Spear’s readers, perhaps — to go into politics because they can make a difference. But some wealthy individuals who have gone into politics have faced sneers or taunts — won’t that put off others? ‘People who have been successful won’t be worried about brickbats thrown by green-eyed political opponents or journalists. If you’ve run a successful business, especially if you’ve started something from scratch, you’ve had some scraps along the way, it’s not all smooth growing a business. You’ve had a few scars on your back when you’ve run a business and that won’t worry an entrepreneur.’
Lord Heseltine doubts that advice is even necessary: ‘I’d say if you’re looking for my advice, you probably shouldn’t be doing it — if you have doubts, don’t. It’s a demanding profession, long hours, constant exposure to pressure. If you feel that you must, then it’s the most exhilarating and exciting career you can have.’ That sounds an awful lot like being an entrepreneur. ‘Politics is a more complicated world to live in.’
And should it all go wrong, entrepreneurs can always go back to business. Field agrees: ‘I could walk out of this place and earn a living tomorrow. It is easy for MPs to become rather institutionalised and many, I suspect, would find it difficult to continue their previous careers as employees.’
The thought suggests itself that there might be snobbery on the part of the more aristocratic wing of the party about the nouveaux businesspeople. Not so, says Dr Bale: ‘The genius of the Conservative Party — indeed the English upper classes more generally — has been to combine “breeding” with commercial nous in order to, as it were, widen the gene pool. That’s not to say that snobbery didn’t persist: Edward Heath, who came from a working-class background but went on to Oxford, certainly suffered from it, and so — it is said — did Heseltine. And even after a grocer’s daughter was elected leader, the so-called “knights of the shire” were sometimes inclined to think of themselves as a cut above.
‘There is a lot of respect — especially nowadays — for those who have made their own way and made their own money,’ adds Dr Bale, ‘and it’s difficult to think of a truly talented Conservative politician who hasn’t been promoted through the ranks on account of his or her background. If you can motivate and inspire, come up with a strategy, stick to it if it works and adjust it if necessary, and if you regard results as the ultimate test of worth — all skill-sets associated with entrepreneurs — then you have (and have had) every chance of making it to the top in the Tory Party.’
Illustration by Vince Fraser