PATIENCE WHEATCROFT - THE HUMAN FACTOR: It's important for politics that business leaders involve themselves. But they should be heard as individuals, not as representatives of their firms

PATIENCE WHEATCROFT - THE HUMAN FACTOR: It's important for politics that business leaders involve themselves. But they should be heard as individuals, not as representatives of their firms - Now that the election is over, the Government can reflect on the

by PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Now that the election is over, the Government can reflect on the little list of business leaders who voiced their support - and those who sided with the Opposition. Both parties scurried round drumming up business signatures for supportive letters to the press. In theory, it is individuals rather than companies who declare their colours in this way, but when they are high-profile people synonymous with their businesses, the effect can be to link a company with a political party.

But is this wise? Cynics would say that businesses lose nothing, and stand to gain much, by being seen to be on the side of Government. But, if that is the case, then does supporting the Opposition carry risks?

Sir Stanley Kalms clearly thinks not. The feisty Dixons chairman not only signed a letter urging support for the Conservatives but handed over a personal cheque for pounds 250,000, declaring it was 'vital for Britain that William Hague becomes our prime minister'. Yet only one other FTSE-100 CEO signed up alongside Kalms - excluding his chief executive, John Clare, who wisely signed on the dotted line - and that was Sir Clive Thompson, the Rentokil boss. Labour was able to claim a significantly higher FTSE count of seven chiefs.

Among the rest, there are plenty who in private confess to Conservative sympathies but who chose not to make a public declaration. Given the odds offered in favour of the Labour Party's victory, it is not difficult to see why. What, for instance, would have been the upside for Chris Gent, the Vodafone chief executive, in allying himself with the Tories? He may feel aggrieved at the high price of the 3G licences but now he needs co-operation from the Government, not antagonism.

He would also like more deals like the one under which Vodafone will supply up to 50,000 mobile phones to the Government, having been named as preferred supplier. That status was conferred by Peter Gershon at the Office of Government Procurement. I am confident that Gershon and his colleagues would not pay the slightest attention to the voting preferences of Gent or other company leaders in reaching their decisions. Nonetheless, any business people contemplating a public 'coming out' might decide that there is little to be gained by siding with the underdog, even if they harbour doubts about Labour.

Tony Blair was at pains to quell those doubts with his glossy business manifesto and the collection of well-known names beaming out from its pages. There was Allan Leighton, the former Asda CEO, who has opted for a portfolio of directorships, including Consignia, the Post Office as was, and a job, effectively, in the Government's gift. And Sir Alan Sugar, the earthy Amstrad founder, offered his praise for Labour's 'refreshing common sense', which included appointing him as an enterprise czar.

There is nothing new in such endorsements. The Conservatives had their business groupies when they were in power. Some, such as Sir David Kirkham, the multi-millionaire founder of DFS, remain publicly loyal to the cause, while other previously vociferous Tories can no longer be heard. Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth, for instance, the former Tesco boss who went to the Lords as a strong Conservative, now eschews politics in favour of his main job as Gent's chairman at Vodafone.

Some would argue that business people should follow his example and concentrate on making money for their shareholders. It is important for the health of politics that such individuals involve themselves in the debate. But they should be heard as individuals and not as representatives of the companies they run.

This point seemed to elude some big business names when it came to the subject of Britain's entry into the single currency. Niall FitzGerald of Unilever, and natural Tories Thompson and Gent all broadcast their enthusiasm for early entry. At the opposite end of the argument, the indefatigable Kalms became a driving force in Business for Sterling.

But perhaps the lack of tub-thumping by business over the euro issue during the election campaign indicates a growing acceptance that this is not merely an economic question but an intensely political one. Shareholders will be as divided over it as the nation. And so companies should keep silent while individuals make their views known.

Some directors tend to forget that they have a life outside the organisation and indicate that, just as it was once acceptable for them to make donations on their shareholders' behalf, so they can speak for their entire business.

If they make that mistake, political parties may also make the error of identifying companies with the opinions of their leaders. That way lies danger.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime