Boots boss: Was he right to attack Labour's tax policy?

John Hess
Political editor, East Midlands

image copyrightAP
image captionBoots chief executive Stefano Pessina was accused of being a tax exile in Monaco

What should we make of the fierce battle of words that has broken out between the leader of the Labour Party and the billionaire boss of one of the UK's best known high street names - Boots of Nottingham.

The company's Italian-born chief executive Stefano Pessina caused Labour fury by criticising the party's tax plans as being a threat to business growth.

But in attacking Labour's business credentials, he has been accused of being a tax-exile, living a life of luxury in Monaco.

Mr Pessina had criticised Labour's policies on taxing the wealthy, like the mansion tax and higher income tax.

He said of a future Ed Miliband-led Labour government: "If they acted as they speak, it would be a catastrophe".

Those views of the Boots chief have dominated political debate this week and coloured angry exchanges between Ed Miliband and David Cameron.

It's not long since he was being honoured in Nottingham for his contribution to business, even though he had just shifted Boots HQ overseas and was already anxious about the UK's business climate.

"Switzerland is more friendly particularly for a business like us, a business in the health care sector," he told East Midlands Today in 2012.

"It's a more friendly legislation for the international group."

Those anxieties surfaced again in his Sunday Telegraph interview at the weekend.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionLabour leader Ed Miliband said he would not be lectured by Stefano Pessina

The Labour leader hit back, questioning Mr Pessina's tax arrangements.

"I don't think people will take kindly to be being lectured by someone who is a tax exile in Monaco," he said.

"We are now seeing an unholy alliance between the Conservative Party and powerful interests and tax avoiders like Mr Pessina."

So, has Boots declared war on the Labour Party? There's certainly been a high profile alliance between Boots and the Conservative-led coalition.

The government has put £25m in taxpayers' money into a new enterprise zone on surplus land at Boots' huge industrial campus at Beeston, on the edge of Nottingham.

'Pay a fair share'

Could that kind of co-operation explain the anti-Labour comments?

Chris Leslie, Labour's Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury and himself a Nottingham MP is perplexed by the Pessina attack.

"I've met with Stefano and talked about many issues last year," he said.

"He didn't at any point raise with me the concerns that popped up on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph.

"He is saying those remarks were taken out of context.

"But we in the Labour Party want to repair the NHS and have a fairer approach to deficit reduction, and that does mean asking people in privileged, wealthy positions to pay a fair share."

image copyrightPA
image captionDavid Cameron taunted Ed Miliband during Prime Minister's question time on Wednesday

In the Commons, the row erupted during Prime Minister's question time with David Cameron taunting the leader of the opposition.

"He can't find one single business leader who backs his economic policy," he told MPs.

But does the intervention of business leaders influence how people vote?

Professor Steven Fielding of the University of Nottingham doesn't think so.

"The Labour Party thinks by having a figure like this attack them, they are highlighting the unfairness of the way the economy is recovering," he said.

"But I suspect the Conservatives think there's mileage because here's a businessman saying Labour is a threat to business, and a threat to the recovery. So both parties have got something in it for them."

Boots insists it is apolitical. Its American parent company Walgreens wrote in a staff memo:

"Stefano Pessina was expressing his personal views on the economy and definitely not taking a political stance or campaigning against Ed Miliband or the Labour Party."

Between now and election day, Stefano Pessina may be more cautious about political remarks.

But other business leaders are already following where he left off.

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