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Michael Heseltine: One of the few UK businessmen to make a go of politics (Policy Exchange)

Could a Donald Trump — someone who says he can fix the country’s problems because of his extraordinary business acumen — be elected to high office in the UK?

Trump’s shtick is that he is an outsider who has come to clean up Washington. Yet in US terms Trump is not as unusual as he makes himself out to be. Trump’s wealth is hotly debated: he might be the only presidential candidate to have refused to publish his tax return, not because it will show how wealthy he is but because it might reveal that he is much less wealthy than he claims. Some well-informed observers estimate his wealth, due to the huge debts his businesses carry, at around $300 million, rather than the billions he claims. At least that level of wealth has been enjoyed by the losing candidate in the last three presidential elections: Mitt Romney in 2012, via Bain Capital; John McCain in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004, via their respective wives. 

The US Congress is full of extremely wealthy individuals who went into politics after making a fortune in business. This is partly an unintended consequence of the campaign finance reforms of the 1970s, which put strict limits (now $2,700) on how much an individual can donate to a campaign, but no limits on how much a candidate can spend of their own money on their campaign. Self-funding candidates were thus given a huge advantage. It remains to be seen if the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling of 2010 will level the playing field once again. While not overturning donation limits directly to campaigns, this decision has allowed unlimited donations to go to theoretically independent third party organisations campaigning for a candidate.

In the UK there are few politicians who have had stellar business careers before entering politics — and the numbers are declining. The last politician who had become rich in business and was in the running to be Prime Minister was Michael Heseltine. He became involved in publishing in the late 1950s with a graduate recruitment guide and set up Haymarket Publishing, producing business and consumer magazines, in the 1960s. Haymarket is still owned by the Heseltine family; the Sunday Times Rich List now estimates his wealth at £300 million. Interestingly, Heseltine’s business success played only a small part in his pitch for the highest political office. Indeed, some of the more snobbish Tories sneered at the nouveau riche Heseltine: he was the kind of man who had “bought his own furniture”. In the mid-1990s, when Heseltine was Deputy Prime Minister, he did not help his reputation with the Tories’ small business supporters when he boasted that while he was building up Haymarket he only paid his smaller suppliers when their solicitors threatened to sue. Other Conservative politicians of that era who were very successful in business included Edward du Cann and Peter Walker — but in both their cases this ended in ignominy with the secondary banking collapse of the 1970s. Both were lucky: their political careers survived. In similar circumstances today this would be most unlikely.

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