New Labour was very fond of appointing business figures to ceremonial jobs as a way to convince the world that they understood enterprise.
It was also a cunning device to create diversionary “good news” when events were not going to plan. The trend reached its surreal peak when Gordon Brown appointed Alan Sugar as Lord Sugar and made him enterprise tsar – on the day that the beleaguered Labour prime minister was almost toppled by an uprising of his own ministers.
In the post-CSR environment, David Cameron and his team are determined to foster a climate of upbeat events and news stories to shift the focus off the deepest cuts for a generation. This may explain why the prime minister was planning to unveil a new wave of “trade ambassadors” next week to co-incide with a trip to the Far East. This news management has alas been spoiled this evening by FT columnist Mark Kleinman (also business editor of Sky) who reveals on his blog* that Richard Lambert, the outgoing director-general of the CBI, is one of them.
That may explain why Downing Street still hasn’t confirmed the appointment (even though it is true) and Vince Cable’s aides are claiming not to know anything about it (they are too busy with Wednesday’s tuition fees announcement apparently).
Hiring Lambert is rather a coup, given his reputation as a highly respected, cerebral figure (I’m not just saying that because he hired me back in 1999). The former FT editor (pictured to the right of Cameron) is also impeccably apolitical, having criticised the coalition in recent months over its planning policy and its badly-thought out “local enterprise partnerships.”
But one can’t help being slightly cynical about the appointment, one of about a dozen new business envoys. Not least because Gordon Brown first launched a “Business Ambassadors” programme in 2008 with an array of heavyweight figures such as Sir John Bond and Marcus Agius who would promote the UK while overseas. The initiative was not an overwhelming success, to say the least.
It’s also getting increasingly hard to remember all the business types who have been enlisted into the new coalition. We’ve got Stephen Green leaving HSBC to be trade minister, as well as Lord Brittan to be trade adviser. There was the controversial Sir Philip Green appointment to advise on efficiency. Then Lord Young of Graffham was given two separate reports to write on health and safety and now SMEs. And meanwhile Lord Browne is trying to co-opt about 60 business figures to put on new corporate boards within Whitehall departments, as my colleague Beth Rigby revealed a few weeks ago.
This is not to mention the 20-strong business council (shades of Gordon Brown’s ‘Business Council for Britain’) which includes Sir James Dyson and Justin King of Sainsbury’s.
It is of course too early to judge whether such appointments will be positive for UK plc; of course they may be. And it hard to see them doing any harm.
But business people tend to be hard-headed types and may judge the coalition on other, more practical issues – such as its welcome cuts in corporation tax and (less positively) its decision to scrap the regional development agencies and replace them with flaky council-led partnerships with less than a third of the funding.
* A splendid blog, by the way; Kleinman has numerous scoops, revealing only a few days ago that former BP boss Tony Hayward is in talks to work for Temasek, the Singaporean investment agency.