As Trump packs his cabinet with leading executives, are business people any good at politics?

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Trump's choice for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has run Exxon Mobil for years (Source: Getty)

Sam Bowman, executive director of the Adam Smith Institute, says Yes.

Well, it’d be hard to do worse than the politicians. And Trump’s appointments make some sense. Exxon’s Rex Tillerson, in particular, is experienced at negotiating with the leaders of tinpot kleptocracies – a useful skill in a secretary of state.

Mitt Romney’s business success was proof of his competence. It’s harder in business than in politics to get to the top without having some talent – which impresses the public and makes career politicians look rather pedestrian by comparison. If that’s not good politics, what is?

Whether they’re any good at actually running things is another question. JFK’s “Whiz Kid” defence secretary Robert McNamara, a president of Ford Motors, modernised some of the US military but was an architect of the Vietnam debacle. Gordon Brown’s conscription of high-profile business people led to embarrassing failure.

Successful ones can get frustrated by the in-fighting and stagnancy of politics, or get bogged down in the details. They can succeed in politics, but it helps if they can see the wood for the trees.

James Frayne, director of public opinion specialists Public First, says No.

In the UK, people have generally moved between business and politics unhappily. This is partly because the system of government curtails the use of executive power as business people recognise it – forcing them to rely on a permanent civil service which can’t be held accountable in a meaningful way.

It’s different in the US, where business people have been more successful. Regardless of the system of government, many executives have struggled with the brutal scrutiny and hostility that comes with public office.

Perhaps more importantly, many others have struggled with the concept of public policy design – which looks relatively straightforward, but is completely different to anything in business life.

This latter point can’t be overstated. Business people complain about the strategic missteps of politicians. But politicians and advisers tear their hair out at business people’s inability to provide specific policy solutions that are politically viable. We’re seeing just this problem with Brexit.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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