UK Politics

Boots boss and a political dilemma: Ignore him, or take him on?

Stefano Pessina Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Stefano Pessina, acting chief executive of Boots, said a Labour government would be a "catastrophe"

"Tellingly, we lost business. This was crucial... I knew the game was up. If... chief executives say it is Labour that will put the economy at risk, who does the voter believe? Answer: the chief executives. Once you lose them, you lose more than a few votes. You lose your economic credibility. And a sprinkling of academic economists, however distinguished, won't make up the difference."

The words of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, on page 681 of his memoirs, reflecting on why Labour lost the general election in 2010.

After a weekend in which the boss of a universally-known high street chain, Boots, described the prospect of a Labour government as a "catastrophe", it is a quote some within the Labour Party are likely to be reflecting on with some concern.

But it is a quote too which puts Labour's response to Stefano Pessina's remarks in an interesting context: where the party's centre of gravity was under Tony Blair and where it is now.

A Labour government, Mr Pessina told the Sunday Telegraph, would be "not helpful for business, not helpful for the country".

'Perfect for us'

It was a blunt, headline-grabbing intervention that left Ed Miliband's party with three options.

Say nothing, and hope the story goes away, drowned out at least to some extent by headlines from abroad and the Conservatives talking about schools funding.

Find some equally big bosses who will say the opposite.

Or say something and ensure the story does not go away, but hope to steer it around to the party's own perspective.

And say something Labour has.

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Mr Umunna, shadow business secretary, hit back at Mr Pessina's criticism

Labour's response to direct criticism was some direct criticism of its own.

A senior Labour source even told me "this is perfect for us".

What he meant was he hoped it would help define which side his party was on.

"Let's have a really big row," he added.

Hint: we are not on the side of a billionaire chief executive who lives in Monaco.

Outcome: Labour at war with Boots, as one newspaper front page puts it.

Economic competence

The shadow business secretary, Chuka, Umunna said that "people would draw their own conclusions" about the opinions of "those who don't even live here and don't pay tax in this country".

Labour MPs were quick to say rather similar things on Twitter, and trade union GMB chimed in too.

Expect Ed Miliband to join the chorus this week.

Their argument goes like this: people do not want to hear lectures on who they should vote for from a billionaire Italian tax exile sunning himself somewhere hot.

Absolutely right, no doubt some will say.

But the painful thing for Labour is that Stefano Pessina's remarks twinge the sore political tendon that is the party's achilles heel, in the minds of many: economic competence.

They also serve to emphasise, in an election race closer and more unpredictable than any for a generation, how the instincts of Labour in 2015 are very, very different from how they were less than a decade ago.

More on this story