Sleeping with the enemy

The fuss over whether Lord Nicholas Stern has or hasn’t agreed to advise the Conservatives on climate policy set me thinking about when is it ever the right time for senior figures to switch political sides.

When I heard the news on the Today programme earlier this week that Lord Stern would be advising the Tories, my first thought was “so what?” and my second was that it was a sensible decision by all involved, since there needs to be continuity in climate policy. Frankly, I would be more worried if he weren’t advising them.

His swift and strong rebuttal – that he will advise a policy group, but will not be an adviser to any political party – showed that the Tories had gone too far in claiming him as one of their own.

But what of those who have deliberately got into bed with the Tories, and why have they done so? Yesterday saw the launch of George Osborne’s “New Economic Model”, with seven named senior business endorsers. Why have they publicly jumped so far ahead of an election with an uncertain outcome?

Osborne’s “eight benchmarks” are entirely sensible and uncontroversial. Who could object to macroeconomic stability, a safer banking system or a greening of the economy, for instance? Not me, and I’m hardly likely to consider a blue rinse any time this side of eternity. But for leaders of major businesses to be so publicly endorsing the Conservatives, when they are far from assured of forming the next Government, is a pretty high-risk strategy.

The presumption is that by being early movers they will gain credit from a future Conservative Government, either as individuals or for their companies. All well and good if the Tories win. But there are still four months and a Budget to get through before the General Election, during which time an outgoing Government has plenty of opportunity to take revenge for their infidelity.

And what if the Tories don’t win outright, and somehow Labour and the Liberals cobble together a Government? Well, then you’ve rather blown your political capital for five years. While you will have a right still to expect a Labour-led Government to act responsibly towards your company, you can’t expect it to bend over backwards to be extra helpful if you’ve so publicly ditched it ahead of an election. Those meetings with Ministers, which are currently arranged so easily, may take that little bit longer to come around. When you pick up the phone for an informal chat with the Ministers’ advisers, you might find they don’t answer or call back. And the tribal backbench MPs who currently help you to make your case are unlikely to forgive you for dumping their party.

The Financial Times today reports that these business leaders are rowing back and claiming that their endorsement is only of the principles in Osborne’s plan, rather than a political endorsement of the Conservative Party. This is sensible, since they need to continue to do business with Labour in the coming months. Though it would have been better if they had not allowed the Tories to make political capital out of them.

So when should senior business leaders jump ship? Well, ideally they should be like Switzerland – neutral and willing to make a profit from all sides in times of war. But if they are determined to take sides, then they should be like the Italians, switching only when they are absolutely certain that the side they are currently on is definitely going to lose. Until then, they should stick with the Government of the day, as it is the Government which determines the economic, business and fiscal policy that affects their businesses.

Or they should just keep schtumm.

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