It’s unusual for business leaders to speak up publicly on politics, especially this close to a general election. Associating your brand so explicitly with a political position runs the massive risk of alienating a significant proportion of the population - an especially big problem for a consumer facing company.
That’s why MT has to wonder what was going through the mind of Boots boss Stefano Pessina when he told the Sunday Telegraph that a Labour government could be a ‘catastrophe’. The party’s policies would be ‘not helpful for business, not helpful for the country and in the end it probably won’t be helpful for them’ he said.
Pessina was executive chairman of Alliance Boots until December, when the chemist chain completed a mega-merger with American drugstore giant Walgreens, and he is now acting chief executive of the aptly named Walgreens Boots Alliance.
He was born in Italy but is now a citizen of Monaco, a fact that of course was like a red rag to the Labour bull. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, said. ‘The idea that someone who does not pay any tax in Britain should be telling British people how to vote, will stick in the craw of many people.’ Pessina was previously criticised in 2008 for moving Boots’ headquarters from Nottingham to Switzerland.
Miliband is reportedly planning to stick his own boot in sometime today, but he had best choose his words carefully. From energy price caps to the mansion tax and planned raids on land banks, a lot of business leaders are concerned that a Labour government would be a threat. Last week, Simon Walker, director-general of the Institute of Directors, said that Miliband had lost the 'hard-won respect of the City of London'. Ouch.
Tory MPs were rubbing their hands together at another opportunity to paint Miliband as anti-business. ‘Rather than listening to one of Britain’s biggest employers about their catastrophic economic policy, Labour MPs are attacking him,’ said the business minister Matthew Hancock. ‘It’s clear that Labour’s only answer is more spending, more debt and more taxes.’
But the Blues have their own business problem – which Pessina to his credit also alluded to. ‘I believe it would be big mistake for the UK to leave Europe, because the economy will suffer a lot and Europe is by the far most important commercial partner for the UK,’ he said.
‘It would have been like Scotland leaving the UK. These things are not really rationally conceivable today. Business leaders are convinced that the common sense of the British people will drive the right solution, which is staying in Europe.’
David Cameron has promised a referendum on the matter by 2017 and with the prospect of UKIP wielding more influence on the horizon, the risks of a Brexit are only getting bigger. With such a crucial issue at stake, expect to see an increasing number of business leaders who are willing to stand up and be counted.