A lot was resting on May’s General Election for Esther McVey. As well as either shattering or fulfilling her political ambitions, the result in Wirral West – the marginal seat she successfully fought for the Conservatives – was to determine whether her business decisions of late were the right ones. She spoke to us as campaigning began in earnest.
As well as being a Tory parliamentary candidate former TV presenter McVey was also a businesswoman and, with winning in mind, had spent the last year or so rearranging her business interests and finances to allow her to concentrate fully on politics once elected.
In early January this year McVey sold Winning Women – the business networking firm she set up eight years ago – after about a year of preparation, to its Leeds-based counterpart Forward Ladies. McVey won’t discuss what was paid for the group – which had over 7,000 members across the North West – but she says the deal “worked for everybody”.
“It wasn’t masses and masses, but it was a good price and I was pleased with it,” she says. “One of my overriding concerns was about the women having some kind of continuity with the new owner and they have got that with Forward Ladies.”
McVey has also negotiated a deal to sell an office development – Seymour Terrace in Liverpool is currently operated by Making It UK, the firm she set up five years ago to provide serviced office and incubator space – that she says will be finalised imminently.
The state of the property market has, she says, dictated her decision to hand over control of another of Making Its projects – an office development, business and learning centre on Liverpool’s Waterloo Dock – to her dad.
McVey says it’s taken four years to secure planning permission – granted early this year – for 100,000 sq ft in the five-storey and four-storey buildings on one acre of land.
Handing the project over to her father makes sense, she says, because it’s his area of expertise – he runs the Liverpool-based construction company J.G. McVey and Co – and she trusts him “100 per cent”.
She always stood a good chance of being elected: in January Stephen Hesford, the then Labour MP for Wirral West who beat McVey by 1,097 votes in 2005, announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election and boundary changes meant the seat was notionally already Tory. And she was reasonably confident – “you hope that, after ten years, with everything at the most positive that it could be, you’ll get in” – but she admitted that by keeping the Waterloo Dock project in the family she was not relinquishing all involvement in business. “Obviously, I will be there to reap the profits at the end, won’t I Dad?” she laughs.
Come May, then, she was free of any business interests – she will maintain the Making IT UK business name but has no plans to start any other projects in the near future.
Asked if she considered prepping the businesses so they could continue under her ownership without demanding so much of her time, she says, “Not for me! I wanted to make politics my fulltime job.
“I’m the sort of person who would be anxious about what was going on. Everything is such a competitive market, I don’t think with any business you can just sit back and think someone else is going to do it for you while you just own it.”
The prospect of election hadn’t only dictated the timing of the disposal of her businesses but their growth. Losing the election in 2005 has, she says, made planning in business “trickier” since.
“In a way it’s like treading water and you can find yourself maintaining rather than growing. It can be limiting because you can’t put all of your energies into business when you think about how many days a week you are giving to politics – which kind of stumps your business.”
The election that didn’t happen in October 2007 gave McVey a false start too: “I have been on the starting blocks for nearly two years because everybody’s thought he [Gordon Brown] could go anytime since then. It doesn’t half make it difficult to plan ahead.
“I have always been very open with what I was going to do with Winning Women so when people have left or moved over the last couple of years I haven’t replaced them.”
She says her 15 years spent in TV – presenting GMTV and the BBC’s Heaven and Earth Show amongst others – stand her in good stead to handle the difficulties that can affect a career in politics. She says, “It was a life change from around 2000 and at that stage I was working in TV and I was doing well and I knew I would have to move because I wasn’t allowed to be politicised in the programmes I was doing.
“There are so many other dimensions to it – the time involved, the geography of where you are placed, the obligations you have to staff – all of which I encountered from being in TV and in business. You have to be realistic and you do very much have to want to do it.”