THE BLOG
02/09/2015 07:24 BST | Updated 01/09/2016 06:59 BST

In Defence of Michelle Mone

The trend of entrepreneurs succumbing to the lure of politics is as old as the hills. Benjamin Franklin, Silvio Berlusconi, and former Chilean president Pinera Sebastian all founded their own businesses before attempting to master the political arena. Not all entrepreneurs, however, have been quite so bold in their political aspirations. Lord Sugar and James Caan, for example, are among the many men and women who have undertaken Whitehall "czarships," whereby individuals from a certain industry or sector are brought in by senior government ministers for their expertise. In the six years from 1997 to 2013, nearly 300 czars were hired to address a wide range of issues.

The latest appointee to czarship status is Scottish entrepreneur and Ultimo founder Michelle Mone, who will lead an inquiry into the barriers disadvantaged people face in setting up their own companies. There is, said Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, "no-one better qualified to help young entrepreneurs from deprived backgrounds to turn a good idea into a flourishing business". So why, since being handed the role last month, has Mone come under such vitriolic attack?

"Everyone in Scotland is just flabbergasted that [she] should be picked to be entrepreneurial leader," Scottish tech entrepreneur Ian Ritchie told BBC Radio 4. "She's a small-time businesswoman with PR exposure far in excess of any success," said Douglas Anderson, a director at the Glasgow-based GAP Group. "She's a personal brand rather than a serious businesswoman," added one Scottish Tory.

It's hard not to question whether, had she designed briefcases rather than brassières, or had she left the modeling of her products to the models, Mone's appointment would have caused such outcry. Her critics are right, however, that her story is not without controversy. In the 11 months to December 2013, her company MJM International made a heavy loss before its assets were transferred to parent firm Ultimo Brands International. But this is hardly the first instance of an entrepreneur entering into financial difficulty: Walt Disney went bankrupt several times before Disneyland was built; Sir Richard Branson - arguably this country's most revered entrepreneur - experienced continuous cash flow problems at Virgin Records, even when sales were high.

It was also reported that her business had used employee benefit trusts (EBTs) - tax avoidance schemes which were previously branded "morally repugnant" by Chancellor George Osborne. But the businesswoman has since taken to Twitter to state that all her business tax affairs were in "full compliance with the law".

To criticise Mone is to ignore the real problem: that there is little evidence to suggest that plucking someone from a particular industry, giving them direct access to ministers and use of government resources in exchange for "expert advice" is a good idea. As Ruth Levitt, senior research fellow at King's College London, recently pointed out: such informal arrangements are "vulnerable to ministerial idiosyncrasy, opaque procedures, lack of accountability, and things can go wrong".

Consider the decision to hand retail guru Mary Portas the task of reinvigorating Britain's ailing high streets, which was subsequently described as an inefficient use of government money after 10 out of the 12 towns selected for investment saw an increase in empty shopping outlets. Or the fact that, just hours after private equity entrepreneur James Caan was announced as the government's social mobility czar, it emerged that he employed his daughter.

The problem is with the game, not the player. Mone's success story is an extraordinary one: born in the East End of Glasgow, she left school at 15 without any qualifications and has since achieved over £1 billion worth of PR and become one of Scotland's most prominent entrepreneurs. Four times she put her house to the bank. She has risen, fallen, and risen again. Ultimo, which Mone recently sold an 80 per cent stake in, has been valued at £50 million. And last week, the businesswoman was named as one of 45 new Conservative peers by David Cameron.

We can, at best, hope that Mone's review will succeed in spite of her leadership; at worst, expect it to fail because of her involvement. But research does suggest that, in the right role or environment, expert outsiders can bring value to government policy that complements the skills and knowledge of civil servants, thus enhancing the overall quality of advice to ministers. So rather than seeking fluffy titles, entrepreneurs wanting to shape policy should instead respond to consultations that they can directly influence - like the Migration Advisory Committee's call for evidence review on the economic impact of the Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) route. They should attend some of the many events held by organisations operating in the entrepreneurial sphere and at which politicians and policymakers frequently speak. And if they're truly passionate about a particular issue, they should write about it.