What Can Politics and Business Learn from Each Other? | A Q&A with Nick de Bois

26 September 2019

Former MP and Chief of Staff to the Brexit Secretary, Nick de Bois is uniquely placed to deliver insights into the Brexit story so far, and indeed what may lie ahead.

That's why we sat down with the businessman turned MP to discuss his term in parliament and how his career at Rapiergroup inspired his dive into politics.

From MD to MP and Chief of Staff to the Brexit Secretary, learn what valuable lessons Nick believes politics and business can learn from each other.

We were intrigued to see that you started off your career in business. Can you tell us a little bit about your story and how you moved from business, to politics, and now into speaking?

I left Technical college at the height of the early 1980’s recession and staggered from one job to another simply to ensure I could pay the rent and have enough left over to take advantage of being young and in London. From betting shops to selling leases on private safe deposit boxes and working in pubs I was having fun but sensed at some point I would have to grow up, and get a proper job as my Mum would have said. That materialised with a two year stint with the Advertising Standards Authority and then, by a stroke of luck i found myself sitting on a plane next the Chief Executive of a then major PLC Communications group, Charles Barker Ltd. I spent the whole of that short plane trip to Paris trying to convince him why he should interview me for a job as an agency Account Manager which he finally succumbed too. Looking back I suspect he did so just to shut me up.

Remarkably 5 years later I was leading a de-merger of the division I was working in for the Charles Barker Group which was called Rapier Design Ltd, an international events and exhibition company. I had no money, few clients and only the promise to pay for the business out of profits which was the basis of the deal. So, in 1998, armed with a small team of 8 people and a credit card we set about building first a viable business and then expand it.

Today, Rapiergroup as it has been known since 1998, is enjoying great success delivering events around the world for blue chip clients. I have reduced my stake to a minority shareholding. Yet it was the difficulties I faced in the first few weeks of setting up the company that prompted me to plan that one day I would go into politics.

The reason I made this pledge to myself was simply this: Politicians at the time, Conservative politicians I might add, were mouthing the rhetoric that they would help young people start their own businesses, that they had schemes in place to help people like me secure funding, and that government would help remove the regulatory barriers often faced when trying to start a business at that time. In my experience I found none of that rhetoric matched the reality. The schemes were clumsy and all but impossible for me to take advantage of. The government support I was being offered was a reduced price consultancy ( as if I would have the time to do that!) and finally, when it came to securing funding it actually meant dealing with the banks who were meant to lend money to high risk start-ups like mine with the benefit of a government guarantee. I was being sold another “pup” as the then bank manager said to me at the time, “ we don’t really like this scheme which you have been approved for as it is too much work for us”. I promised one day to take these experiences into parliament and try and bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality.

What can politics learn from business, and vice-versa?

Parliament still has too many so called “professional politicians, or people who have become an MP following the typical path of University, work at Party HQ, then for an MP and then become an MP. This in itself is not a bad thing, but parliament needs much wider representation from across the country it seeks to represent and in particular from those who have worked in business or as in my case, enjoyed the highs and lows of starting a business. With that experience, as with many other professions and trades, Parliament and Government can learn from each other. Certainly, business can learn what not to do when you look at the way both process and policy are pursued. Where else for example would you promote someone to run the largest employer in the country who may have done little more than run a bath in their entire life? No experience necessary apply here?  That’s precisely how we appoint the ministers at all levels and does in fact mean we can end up with the Secretary of State for Health, responsible for the NHS, ( our largest employer in the UK) who may have no specific credentials for the job or executive experience. I suggest business are overall unlikely to do that. But we can learn much from our political parties when it comes to campaigning and messaging.

I was part of the 2010-2015 parliament which saw David Cameron ruthlessly repeat the mantra of "Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice - stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband” Every minister and every MP repeated this messaging time after time, and it worked as evidenced by Camerons 2015 election win.

Perhaps though the most notable absence of business advice was in the structure and setting up of the Brexit negotiations where the UK conceded from day one a huge tactical advantage to the EU by letting them dictate what would be discussed and when. It meant that the UK conceded a financial settlement before agreeing the terms of withdrawal from the EU. It is striking that this decision was taken by a Prime Minister, her private office staff, and the senior civil servant - none of whom had any significant business experience.

You spoke about the importance of being thought provoking versus provocative. How did this help you during your time as the Chief of Staff to the Brexit Secretary?

In the current environment the temptation to provoke is proving hard to resist. Our media commentators are looking to shock as a matter of course to retain their audience and many politicians in the main seek less consensus and dig themselves into more strident positions. It is easier to provoke and generate a headline or a controversial response than to drive thought provoking moments that I believe would have a more profitable outcome. If you like, provoking has become the norm, whereas if used wisely can be effective.

During my time as Chief of Staff to Dominic Raab the then Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, we regularly sat around the negotiating table with Michelle Barnier and the rest of the EU negotiating team. By the time we were engaged in the negotiations, many red lines had been set on both sides, and technical teams had been working on a weekly basis going through the detail where much non-controversial points were agreed. That meant inevitably the difficult issues were escalated to the meetings we held as “principles” and often clashed with the “red lines".

Inevitably, we were discussing highly sensitive issues including the Northern Ireland border and if, in the event of no deal how the UK government would not put up a hard border. What was unclear at the time was, what would the EU insist the Irish government do on the border. To be clear in the main these meetings were always through provoking, but in this case our enquiry drew a passionate if not quite table thumping moment from our interlocutors, and a lengthy speech. At the time it seemed to achieve very little in terms of moving the issue along but I do know that it left a permanent impression on the negotiators on both sides, and since these incidents were rare, may have had some marginal benefit as may now becoming evident in the present round of negotiations where there is a willingness to engage on alternative border proposals.

What was the inspiration behind your book “Confessions of a Recovering MP”?

I was grumpy.

We had messed up the 2017 election, politics was being ridiculed and MPs had sunk to a new low in the eyes of the public. No leader of any Party had attempted to stand up for the institution that is frankly even now, one of the best forms of parliamentary democracy to be found anywhere in the world. MP’s however were perceived by most people as horribly, toxic. It was time to mount not so much a defence of the current political situation, but shine a light on what actually an MP does at every level, government, parliament and constituency. I did not want the book to be a political book, but a book about politics viewed through plenty of anecdotes to illustrate points and highlight both the opportunities and limits that go hand in hand with being an MP. Frankly, the book confronts the bizarre, the mundane, the hugely important and frankly a lot of utter tosh that greeted me from the moment I entered parliament in 2010.

Many of the stories in your book feature as anecdotes when you're on stage, so what's been the most memorable event you've spoken at?

There are plenty of anecdotes that are not in the book of which one is particularly memorable.

I had been invited to speak at a rally on the controversial proposals at the time to introduce plain packaging on cigarrette packets, something that whilst intuitively attractive was lacking in evidence to support the introduction of the policy, a point I had been making and arguing we should wait a year so we could learn from Australia who had implemented similar policies. The problem with this rally, that I had failed to spot when I accepted the invitation, is that it was at 10.30 at night at the tail end of a reception where free Margarita cocktails were being thrown down the throats of the delegates attending, which given the free margaritas was about 500 people, all happily intoxicated. The previous speaker had lost the audience as he ploughed on reeling off some dull statistics that were making no headway through the fog of the cocktails and the audience were totally ignoring him even though he represented the sponsor of those free cocktails they were happily knocking down.

When my turn arrived to step up to the microphone I abandoned all thoughts of a sensible speech and, still cursing my bad luck, I yelled down the microphone “Colleagues Do you like Magaritas?” “Yes,” chanted about 100 people, enough to cause the rest of the group to wonder what was happening. “Colleagues” I pressed on "Do you like Plain Packaging?" “No” chanted about half of the very sloshed delegates. Picking up on the theme, I then chanted “Margaritas?” ”Yes” they chanted back, now all in unison. “Plain Packaging?!”  “No” they all responded having now caught on to the idea. And so it continued for about 4 or 5 rounds until I concluded the speech at that point, recognising the most important rule in public speaking that, if you are last onto a stage after a series of speakers, keep it short.

I can still hear the resounding applause as everyone returned to their Margaritas.

If you could leave any audience with one message to take home, what would that be?

In the heat of the current political crisis why not pause for a moment and reflect that our political system has evolved over centuries and it is more robust and more tested than almost anyone or any other institution in the country apart from perhaps the monarchy. With that extensive experience in mind, is it really unreasonable to expect that we can learn something that will improve us, our business and how we conduct ourselves?

Finally, we’ve mentioned the book but what else is next for you?

I am tempted to run again for Parliament if I’m able to do so and if we face an early election. In the meantime, I am enjoying my role as guest broadcaster with talkRADIO, advising on Brexit and political affairs and speaking of course!

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