Why leaders love Davos

From high political office to banking is a well-worn route for Tory grandees. Now Labour is in on th

The recruitment of Tony Blair by the bankers J P Morgan for a reported $5m a year is a first for Labour. But it shouldn't surprise us. Business and politics have become so interlinked, symbolised by this month's Alpine lovefest at Davos, that they are like inseparable twins.

Tories historically have flitted in and out of banking and finance, rarely attracting attention except when things go badly wrong. There was glee, for instance, when Lord Wakeham was found to be on the audit committee of the fraudulent energy firm Enron.

Generally speaking, banking connections have been considered a plus, not a minus, in Tory politics. Swaths of leading Conservative politicians, including Norman Lamont, Oliver Letwin and William Waldegrave, have moved seamlessly through the revolving doors at that most venerated of houses, N M Rothschild, barely causing a stir. Across the Atlantic, Goldman Sachs is home from home for cabinet ministers and high officials of both major parties. It supplied Robert Rubin as Bill Clinton's treasury secretary and currently has Hank Paulson out on loan to George W Bush.

Labour is less comfortable about such relationships. Blair appointed Gavyn Davies, the talented Brownite economist from Goldman Sachs, as chairman of the BBC, but was squeamish about his candidacy as governor of the Bank of England when (Lord) Eddie George stepped down nearly five years ago. In America there was no such hesitancy when Ronald Reagan called on the services of Alan Greenspan to run the Federal Reserve in 1987, even though he sat on the board of J P Morgan - Blair's new employer.

In recent times the political-business nexus (what Dwight D Eisenhower famously identified as the military-industrial complex) has become stronger. The former prime minister John Major and George Bush the elder became direct participants as advisers to the Carlyle Group, a secretive, Washington-based private equity firm specialising in defence deals. It was the Carlyle Group that profited handsomely when the Blair-Brown government brought the James Bond spy firm QinetiQ to the public markets in 2006.

Among the great facilitators of the political-business nexus is German-born Klaus Schwab, self-important founder of the Davos conference. When Davos started it was a low-key enterprise bringing together senior world politicians and top business executives to discuss the global economy. Attendance was by invitation only, the media were not welcome, and executive sessions were closed to all but a carefully selected elite.

Strict hierarchy

The informality is now a thing of the past. Davos has become a gathering of business and political celebrities with showbiz glamour thrown in. There is a strict hierarchy of passes - a bit like Royal Ascot. The media are there in their thousands and any self-respecting executive books his or her hotel years in advance. Failure to do so could mean slumming it down the mountain in Klosters, which is fit only for royalty.

Davos is where leaders from East and West Germany hammered out the currency arrangements for the new single German state after the Berlin Wall came down; where Eastern Europe was introduced to the power of capitalism; and where successive Middle Eastern leaders have held "back-channel" negotiations with Israel.

Even Gordon Brown, famously fastidious about social gatherings, has found uses for Davos. It has provided him with a forum, away from the prying eyes of most of the Westminster press gang (Davos, like the International Monetary Fund, is reported largely by economic journalists), where he can do complex deals with business.

In 2006 it provided him with a chance to bond with his pal Bill Gates with the launch of a $600m Global Plan to Stop TB. Such projects are nothing new for Brown. As chancellor, he was a pioneer in tapping in to the Microsoft riches to launch plans that sceptics call private finance initiatives for the developing world.

So, why has Blair's relationship with J P Morgan caused such consternation? His decision to throw in his lot with an American bank has played into the hands of all those enemies who believe the Blairs are money-grubbing arrivistes. Big Wall Street banks collect "door openers" such as Blair, to have on hand to give speeches and presentations and to discard when no longer useful.

There is an alternative post-political leadership route, which is the one adopted by the failed US president Jimmy Carter. He has spent his retirement floating around the world, monitoring elections in obscure countries. That is when he is not in the Bronx hammering together housing for the poor. It is not the kind of journey one imagines that Cherie, mistress of Connaught Square, would choose for her spouse.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism