If you saw Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna’s comment in The Independent earlier this week, in which he claimed Stefano Pessina “played the man, not the ball,” you could be forgiven for thinking the Boots chief executive had performed a Six Nations-style rugby tackle on Ed Miliband in the middle of Central Lobby.
The reality, of course, was far less dramatic – albeit as unhelpful for Mr Miliband and Labour. Mr Pessina instead suggested a Labour government would be a “catastrophe.” His was the first of a series of high profile interventions in which business leaders including Lord Stuart Rose questioned Labour’s approach to business.
Mr Pessina wasn’t the best person to throw the first stone at Labour – and the Party’s response to the non-UK residing chief executive was suitably swift, robust and indignant. The comments of the likes of Lord Rose, however, are less perhaps less easily dismissed – not that it stopped Chuka Umunna from trying with the claim that as a Tory peer, Lord Rose is hardly impartial.
That point about partiality may have some basis, although it’s entirely reasonable that Lord Rose should offer his opinion if asked for it. But in addressing Stefano Pessina’s comments for The Independent, Mr Umunna suggested a smear on his party leader and that there was a need to “keep business out of the personal, nasty stuff that unfortunately may characterise the general election campaign.”
In claiming a personal smear, Mr Umunna (to borrow his sporting analogy) looked rather like the footballer who appeals for another player to be booked. And while he is sadly right that sniping and personal attacks might be a feature of the election, he is perhaps overstating Mr Pessina’s comments as a personal attack on Ed Miliband.
Even if Mr Pessina’s comments were directed at the Labour leader, that doesn’t make it personal but a critique. But it’s not unreasonable to expect that a leader should face criticism for his or her party’s policies. Playing man and ball is part and parcel of modern British politics. It seems a little trite for Mr Umunna to cry foul, particularly when Labour will focus much of their election strategy doing exactly the same thing with David Cameron and the NHS.