Britain's Brown taps his own Donald Trump to boost dismal ratings
Conservatives snapped up a Labour seat in Norwich North in a Friday by-election. Brown has turned for help to self-made billionaire Alan Sugar, putting him in the House of Lords – and naming him ‘enterprise czar.’
London — Alan Sugar is Britain's Donald Trump, a brash entrepreneur who has dispatched five seasons' worth of contestants on the BBC's version of "The Apprentice." The British press has dubbed him a "bully" and the "beast of Brentwood" (where he keeps his home) for his on-screen antics.
But last week, the flamboyant billionaire was given a new sobriquet by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown: Lord Sugar.
The appointment of the tailor's son with the cockney accent to the House of Lords, the government body once reserved for British nobility, is more than a mark of the growth of meritocracy in British political life. It's part of a desperate effort by Mr. Brown, deeply unpopular at home, to avoid being told "You're fired!" by voters in elections that will be held sometime before next June.
Sugar, a self-made billionaire, is Brown's new "enterprise czar," and his tasks range from cutting red tape to guiding government investment.
Yet opposition politicians were crying foul even before the Jewish boy from London's scruffy East End donned the ermine robes of a lord.
Only blatant snobs will complain
The Conservative Party lodged a complaint with the BBC, saying Sugar's dual role working for the broadcaster and the government is a conflict of interest. Blatant snobbery, countered fans who welcomed his arrival as a breath of fresh air in the rarefied world of Westminster.
Sugar remains an outsider with an apparent distaste for many of the polite conventions of Britain's establishment, despite his unofficial ranking as Britain's 59th richest person. Born in 1947 in poverty in an East End that had been devastated by World War II, his live quickly took on the sheen of a Horatio Alger story.
By 12, he was leaving the house every day at dawn to boil beet roots for a local trader. At 16, he was selling car antennas from the back of a van, and by age 21, he'd amassed enough capital to start Amstrad - Alan Michael Sugar Trading. He had an initial public offering in 1980 and, after overcoming difficulties in the 1990s, was bought by the broadcaster BSkyB for a reported $200 million in 2007.
"There is a huge amount of snobbishness about his appointment," says Stephen Alambritis of Britain's Federation of Small Businesses. "As an entrepreneur who has made it from a very modest background he is someone who many look up to for inspiration."
That may be one of the reasons Mr. Brown has turned to him. A poll last Sunday in the Times of London showed that Mr. Brown's Labour Party is trailing the Conservative Party by 17 points with less than a year to go before the fresh elections.
Labour is being blamed not only for the country's deep recession, but has also been caught up in a number of scandals involving Labour politicians using public money for personal expenses. On Friday, 27-year-old Conservative Chloe Smith became the youngest member of Britain's Parliament, winning the election to fill the seat from Norwich North, which was vacated by Labour MP Ian Gibson after he was caught up in a corruption scandal.
No slave to convention
But whether the controversial Sugar is the man to restore some luster to Labour remains to be seen, especially given his famous lack of politesse.
Some charge that Sugar has lost his Midas touch when it comes to business and wonder what Brown stands to gain by the appointment, apart from hoping that some star quality will rub off on him.
Katie Hopkins, a former contestant on "The Apprentice" who earned both notoriety and admiration by turning down Sugar's offer of a place in the 2006-07 season's final episode, describes the appointment as a "celebrity-driven quick fix."
"I think that he [Sugar] has been a fantastic businessman in his time, and is a consummate media professional, but right now, people want gravitas," says Ms. Hopkins, who dabbled in politics earlier this year as an unsuccessful candidate in the European Parliamentary elections. Voters "want an end to frivolity and an end to stunts."
For his part, Sugar insisted last month that his new role was "politically neutral," telling the BBC: "I don't see this as kind of a political thing. I know that everybody else does.... [As] far as I'm concerned, I've just got a passion to help out young people, to help out businesses.
Sugar was something of a household name even before "The Apprentice," most notably as an owner of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, where he earned the enduring the hatred of fans who accused him of putting profit before the club's best interest.
Typically acerbic, he described his 10-year involvement with the club as "a waste of my life," later famously remarking on his decision to fire a popular manager: "I felt as though I'd killed Bambi."
But he became a full-fledged celebrity thanks to "The Apprentice," on which sharp-elbowed young contestants compete for the prize of a job in his business empire. Sugar's approach to his show's boardroom confrontations made Donald Trump look like the picture of caring.
On Wednesday, the BBC's governing body took the unusual step of announcing that next year's season may be rescheduled to ensure that Sugar would not be on screens during campaigning for an election. But it rejected a formal complaint of a conflict of interest brought by the Conservatives.