The news that businesspeople can enjoy dinner with a minister at the Conservatives' annual conference – for £1,000 a pop – has created the usual outrage. Cash for access? Same old sleaze?
The former sleaze watchdog, Sir Alastair Graham, may well be right that ruling parties need to be above suspicion. But does anyone really think that someone can change, or even influence, public policy by sitting across the table from some minister at a party fundraiser? Maybe some businesspeople do, but anyone in politics just rolls their eyes at the thought.
I see so many businesspeople who boast that they have just had a meeting with a minister, who nodded sagely when they were told we should do X, Y or Z. I know that the next day, someone else would be in telling them to do the exact opposite, and that the minister would have nodded equally sagely. In business, you are used to making sound plans which your staff then execute. In politics, you can give people sound plans but all it does is to start a discussion. What actually happens – if anything – depends less on common sense than the innumerable political pressures that squeeze the policy into different contorted results.
In any event, if you haven't been at the table during the years of opposition, no politician is going to regard you as a true friend whose opinions should count. To influence policy, you have to play the long game. And you need to understand what pressures politicians to act this way or that, rather than presuming they just make decisions that are then faithfully executed, as you do in business. As Bismarck put it, if you like laws or sausages, you should never watch either being made: but that's how it is.
I dream of a world in which businesspeople get on with making money for their shareholders, rather than spent their time (and their shareholders' cash) pandering to politicians. But politicians today have enormous power – both regulatory power that can spare you from annoying new competition, and purchasing power that can bring you lucrative contracts. Adam Smith complained of such sordid relationships back in 1776 – and government was a good deal smaller back then.
The long-term future of business would be far more secure if politicians stuck to civics and businesspeople stuck to making money by serving their customers. Then at least there would be no doubt that £1,000 can't buy you more than a nice dinner and a handshake.