Matthew Palmer is a Conservative Councillor in Kensington and Chelsea
and was a contestant on the first series of The Apprentice, coming
fifth. Here he defends Gordon Brown's appointment of Sir Alan Sugar to the Lords as a business adviser and says that Conservatives should disregard his politics, celebrate his success as a businessman and be willing to listen to his advice.
Giving the title of Business Tsar to Sir Alan Sugar (and a seat in the Lords) is long overdue; his job description does not change from what he has been doing for the past ten years and so it looks like Brown's new Tsar is just a publicity stunt. All his working life he has been a businessman. With his experience, he can be a positive force with the department better known as the DTI.
As a contestant on the first series of The Apprentice, I was well aware of who he was and what he did before we met for filming (I was the only contestant who got a copy of his deleted biography and researched him). Other contestants did not know much about him – they were more interested in the £100,000-a-year contract. Today, most people know him for the TV work he has done, but quietly and without cameras he has been going around the country trying to advise small and young business how to progress.
With no privileged background, no parental business acumen and no academic success, he has ridden the wave of success at the right time; firstly radios and Hi-fi, then computers, and then Satellite TV (and diversifying into property). Along the way he has made many mistakes – most recently the Amstrad Emailer (during The Apprentice it was being discreetly filmed in use at every opportunity to look like a great product, but behind the scenes the production crew were cursing it because it was useless).
Most of what happened during the filming of The Apprentice (99%) fell on the cutting room floor. So when people ask me what was Sir Alan like to meet, I always say “He is as you see him on TV” – and that is the truth. He and I did not get on and he was quite vocal against me off camera, so when I was in the board room for the first time, it came as no surprise that he jumped at the opportunity and fired me. After the very final episode was aired, he was still being abusive about me. But despite this abuse, I still am prepared to sing his praises.
It is easy to slag off his public persona and the nasty sides of business you might see on The Apprentice, but how many people have started at the very bottom and got to where he is? Bill Gates? No, he was born into a privileged family and was himself very bright, Richard Branson? Ex-public school Branson, No. Simon Cowell? No, No, No, There are very few people who can say they started with nothing and succeeded. To try and set up a business in this country is to be congratulated; to fail and to set up another business should be cheered and shouted from the roof tops. To set up a successful business in this country you are still looked at as if you come from another genetic group.
Time after time, political parties have chosen some person to take charge of the DTI portfolio. Most of them have failed and have long been forgotten, with the notable exceptions of Lord Young and Michael Heseltine, who both in their own way left their mark on the table cloth and both of whom are different types of successful businessmen (Whereas Mandelson was not, and just left a nasty stain on the political bed sheets of the DTI).
No political party has ever given business and commerce the attention it needs. It is always accused of being over-bureaucratic and unsupportive of small business. Even under a Conservative Government, the joke from members of the Institute of Directors and the CBI was that “1 Victoria Street is not home of the DTI, it is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.”
Previous appointed "Tsars" and people “of all the talents” who have been bought into government have gone on to put their foot into it by criticising government policy. Sugar is not a slick PR operator, (The Apprentice director realised very early on that he could not learn lines or work an autocue – so he let him shoot from the hip). Do not be surprised if he follows all the previous Tsars and has a bout of “foot in mouth”.
And Sir Alan may be a Labour supporter when it is an unpopular thing to be, but on his new job, he sees it as “politically neutral”. He has a passion to help where bureaucrats and politicians constantly fail, and he will only be advising on policy and not making it. He has got a great deal of business acumen and a large book of contacts. His long history of business highs and lows should be seen as an open business encyclopaedia for the use of anyone who is willing to take him out of the library – and we should not let his skills be ignored by David Cameron's team, just because he is not “one of us”.