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Thursday 5th July 2012 | 20:00
WORDS: Paul Waugh and Sam Macrory
Alan Sugar is sitting in the wood-panelled and thickly-carpeted splendour of the office of the Shadow Leader of the Lords, sipping tea. Sharply suited and perched behind a large table, he looks every bit at home here as in his famous Boardroom.
His battered but trusty Blackberry at his side, he’s the epitome of the hi-tech tycoon. Putting aside his mug of tea (“I’ll have a sweetener, but no sugar”), he glances at his Rolex to check he’s on schedule. A taste for sweetener is possibly the only thing artificial about the self-made millionaire, whose autobiography is aptly titled ‘What You See Is What You Get’. And while he may now be a fully paid up member of the establishment, Baron Sugar of Clapton in the Borough of Hackney has lost none of his straight-talking style.
Yet perhaps surprisingly, this famously impatient tycoon has plenty of time for the way the Lords does its genteel, artifice-laden business.
Made a life peer and Government enterprise champion by Gordon Brown in 2009, is he now accustomed to the rites and rituals of the Upper House?
“It is strange, but wonderful strange,” he says. “All the regulations and rules and etiquette and that stuff, but that’s all part of being British and the House of Lords is a great place to be. I think tradition is a great thing.”
When asked what he’s achieved since he’s been here, it’s clear that the very fact of his ennoblement still gives him some pride. “From a personal point of view, it is self-satisfaction to be given the honour to be a member of the House of Lords – when I think of where I started and where I came from, the council estates of Hackney. I think that in that sense young people looking in can understand that it is possible in this country to do that. To arrive to this status by sheer hard work and be recognised for one’s achievements.”
As for speeches or votes on legislation, Lord Sugar is adamant he has stuck to his gameplan. He never intended to hold forth on life, the universe and everything. Instead, he’s restricted his contributions to business, education, enterprise and entrepreneurship. “I made it quite clear that I would come in here and not be what a lot of people might have expected, which is to be some kind of new boy on the block loudmouth, just shouting his mouth off on all various things. I speak on matters that I understand. I tend to keep my nose out of things that I don’t understand.”
One thing he understands is tradition, and he’s baffled by the Coalition’s plans to reform the very House in which he now sits.
“I am completely at sea over this Lords reform thing and the reason why [Nick] Clegg has put this forward. To me it’s just like Cameron has just said to him ‘go on and play over there, leave me alone while I can get on with running the country’. A bit like the AV thing that fell through the floor,” he says.
“This place is made up of experts, right? Some people that have spent the whole of their lives, for example, in the law, in law and order, in medicine, in education, in infrastructure, in aviation, in business, in religion and in welfare.” The Sugar Blackberry vibrates on the table, but he ignores it, now into his stride.
“The place is jam-packed full of people who are experts in their field simply because they have spent 40-odd years or so in some cases in that field. And that is the beauty of the House of Lords: to retain that, to keep the other lot who are elected every five years, in check. Don’t get it myself. And in this time while we’ve got so many other problems to deal with in this country, let alone the world in the economic crisis that we’re in, the double dip recession that we’ve most probably got, where does this lie on the list of priorities? Why have we got to waste another 100-odd million pounds messing around with all this stuff, even discussing it. I just hope it gets knocked out the water in the other place, I just hope it goes away.”
But if the Coalition does manage to introduce some elected senators, would he be tempted to stand? “Here’s the interesting point just to show you how bad it can be. If I wasn’t put forward, for example by our party, in say the borough of Essex or Redbridge or Epping, but yet I still wanted to do it, I could still put myself forward as an independent person, and because of who I am and my celebrity, I would get in hands down” – he slaps the table with a bang – “like that”. “They would vote for me, a) because I’m a local boy and b) because they like me and I’ll get it. Is that the right way to get voted in?”
Lord Sugar admits it’s a ‘difficult question to answer’ why he’s not a crossbencher, given he likes to steer clear of party politics. But ask him why he’s a Labour peer and the answer is simple: Tony Blair.
“That’s when I kind of flipped from the Conservatives. It’s a known fact that I was one of Thatcher’s babes, so to speak. She used to haul me around all over the world, all over the country, taking me as the prime example of the entrepreneur. And I thought was she was a great politician. I thought she made some fantastic changes to the country, to the way the country thought. I thought her privatisation was the right thing to do. And then it kind of went wrong when she left and then along came Tony Blair and he was refreshingly different in New Labour and that’s where I’ve been ever since. Gordon also.”
But what about the current Labour leader? Is the jury still out on him? “I don’t know him that well to be honest with you and we haven’t had any reason to meet,” he says. Canny as ever, Sugar falls back on his contract for The Apprentice, which he says restricts major political statements. “As a BBC presenter, one has to be quite neutral, and I find that quite useful sometimes,” he says, letting slip his biggest smile so far. But as a businessman, can he see Ed Miliband as PM, standing on the steps of No.10? “Could be, I don’t know. You’re not going draw me into that answer really.”
One area where Lord Sugar is an expert is aviation. Not only does he know what business needs, he’s also a qualified pilot. And, true to his Essex base, he has a solution to the lack of capacity in the South East: get the airlines to use Stansted more.
In contrast, he worries that continuing delays at Heathrow will tarnish the nation’s reputation overseas during the Olympics. “It’s Britain’s image…We need to get more people to come to England. People love England. But if you are a passenger coming into Heathrow at the moment, and if you are a non-EEC person, you can get stuck waiting in immigration, it’s an absolute joke.”
As a businessman, he also knows that for some of his colleagues – and for many politicians – the key worry right now is a lack of finance. Speaking just before the Barclays scandal erupted, he blames the lack of financial regulation for the financial crash of 2008. But Lord Sugar is fed up with “banker bashing”.
He complains that “politicians have jumped on the bandwagon by trying to wind the public up in general to give them support by making the banks the bad boys”. Banks that are reluctant to lend money are described as a “bit outrageous” and “do need a slapping”, but at the same time Lord Sugar believes there “needs to be a way of, kind of, separating the wheat from the chaff’.
The sight of politicians who say ‘and why aren’t you lending to that bloke?’ leaves him exasperated. “That hopeless cause over there, complete and utter hopeless cause who’s doing all the moaning, all the mouthing off, catching the Sky television cameras, and some of the opposition politicians saying ‘yeah, yeah, poor Harry here, you know, he can’t get this and can’t get....” Well, poor Harry, in some cases, is not entitled to it. Poor Harry has got a bust business. And poor Harry shouldn’t have any money invested in him. Simple as that, right?”
But if increased lending is not always the solution, Lord Sugar is clear about the need for “a lot of backward culling” of regulation, arguing in a way which suggests he is a fan of the controversial Beecroft report’s recommendations on making it easier for companies to sack their staff. The man who made ‘You’re Fired!’ his catchphrase says it’s increasingly difficult to do just that.
“I’ve been employing people for 45 years or so, okay, and what I’ve noticed now is that... whereas 20-odd years ago, 25 years ago, I’d hire more people and just bring them into the organisation and see how they got on and then I’d say ‘sorry mate, this is no good mate’, now you’re frightened to hire anybody. If you do, and you don’t get the documentation exactly right and this right and that right and everything else right, then there’s unfair dismissal. We don’t need that sort of aggravation in small business, right? And it is counter productive and it’s gone mad.”
Tribunals, he says, are being “abused” – the same word he uses to describe the benefits system. Presumably, then, he supports the idea of introducing a benefits cap?
“Or, you know, go and get a job?” he answers bluntly, sharing in Norman Tebbit’s ‘on yer bike’ philosophy.
“Why should we be in a position where frankly, you know, it doesn’t pay to get a job? There’s a difference here between people who have got a work ethic, that don’t want to take benefits and just want to go to work, right, and others that think to themselves ‘well I’ve done all the calculations, done the numbers, and actually why should I got to work?’ And that’s the difference that’s a major change I’ve seen over the years in this country.”
Lord Sugar described the axing of the 50 pence tax rate in the Budget “as a good idea because, at the end of the day, you’ve got to encourage entrepreneurs and people that do make money because they employee other people”, arguing that the 50p rate had a “demoralizing” effect and suggesting that “the 40p rate is about right.”
But that controversial shift to the tax system aside, Lord Sugar is unimpressed with the way George Osborne has followed his Budget with a string of u-turns.
“I’m a great believer that if you’ve made a statement, you know, it’s not damage limitation by changing your mind afterwards and saying ‘ah well, you know, it’s public opinion’. You’re not looking for public opinion, you’re supposed to be the Chancellor. You’ve obviously researched what you’re going to do and you’ve gone out with what you think is best for the county, not what would people like. ‘Oh, I didn’t like it and now I’m changing my mind.’ Well, what kind of Chancellor is that, really? So I think he didn’t do himself any justice there when he did that.”
The Chancellor dealt with, what does Lord Sugar make of Education Secretary Michael Gove and his attempts to bring back O-levels? He accepts that exams have got easier, but Lord Sugar is far more concerned with the “rudderless children” and a “society of youngsters that are lost...and I think that’s a bigger issue to think about than the GCSE.” In his day, Sugar continues, those who struggled in the classroom “turned into good carpenters, good builders, engineers, engineering workers, factory workers and all that type of stuff... they just weren’t ignored.”
Over at Lord Sugar’s former offices at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, ministers and civil servants would reply that the government’s apprenticeship scheme is one of the great success stories of the Coalition.
“I’d like to take the fifth amendment on that one quite frankly” Lord Sugar replies. Inevitably, however, he doesn’t. After all, his show is called The Apprentice.
“There’s packaging up of things that make you look good, yeah, as far as apprenticeships are concerned.
Apprenticeships, you know, are traditionally in engineering workshops and engineering places. Yes, you can have apprenticeships now in hairdressing salons, apprenticeships maybe in cookery and food and all that type of thing, but if you park people in schemes that the government pays for and take them out of the unemployed list to make you look good, you know, it’s playing the numbers really.”
With his diary bursting with media and business commitments, Lord Sugar hardly troubles the Hansard scribes.
The Twittersphere, however, is bombarded with his thoughts on football and other topics. More than two million people follow Lord Sugar’s account, and the Labour peer is proud of his online popularity.
“Someone told me the other day that amongst all of the political circles of everybody that’s on Twitter, I have more followers than the whole lot of them put together, yeah? Maybe ten times the amount.” Lord Sugar says Twitter is his “right to reply”, and boasts that he now has a bigger circulation than the Daily Express and is gaining ground on the Daily Mail, a paper with whom he has endured strained relations. But Twitter, he says, is tipping the balance.
“It has worked beautifully, because the Daily Mail has been very nice to me in the last year or so, in the sense that they don’t say anything about me, right? And the reason is that I’m as powerful as them now. As printed material is becoming less and less important to the population and social networking and media is becoming more and more important, in a funny way my comments about them are more powerful with the younger generation than theirs about me.”
Lord Sugar famously used Twitter to urge his followers not to vote for Ken Livingstone, Labour’s candidate for London mayor.
“I’m not sure whether I was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I am my own person. I said what I said because I believed in it. And I would do the same again” he states bluntly. But did the Labour leadership advise their outspoken peer to watch his words in future? “It doesn’t matter if they would have said that to me. I wouldn’t have taken any notice” comes the reply, an answer that nicely sums up Lord Sugar’s approach to his party career.
With Alan Michael Sugar, what you see is indeed what you get. Even if that means a bittersweet time for political friends and foes alike.
SUGAR ON... HIS TIME AS ENTERPRISE CHAMPION
“You stand in front of an audience of 300 people, where perhaps 50 of them... genuinely have got a gripe, and the other 250 you wouldn’t lend a ha’penny too, right?”
SUGAR ON...TYPICAL MP
“He’s got a big ratchet mouth, he’s got a good mouth and got himself elected – and starts putting forward proposals that need to get beaten up in a place like this [the Lords]”
SUGAR ON... THE YOUNG APPRENTICE
“More than anything else, nowadays, it’s needed to show that not all kids are bad. You get those terrible riots last year and we show a different calibre of youngster. They are good, decent people.”
SUGAR ON... ANDRE VILLAS-BOAS (AVB)
“I don’t even know who he is. Isn’t that alternative voting?”
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