Comment – Look who’s got the real weight

Who would succeed Tony Blair if he were to fall under the proverbialt is on the case. But accountants may have little to fear, says David Walker. London bus? Westminster gossip suggests that, on present form, it would be Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam, who seems untouched by allegations – apart from one that she swears a lot.

The absence of Trade Secretary Margaret Beckett from the running is hardly surprising. Among Cabinet ministers she has not enjoyed a high profile over the past year. Very few DTI issues have spilled over from the City pages of the papers and attracted wider interest. But that was all on Labour’s pre-election script – the DTI was meant to be downgraded in terms of public attention.

When Blair’s summer reshuffle comes, Beckett will stay put, on the understanding that macro-economic policy is made exclusively by the Treasury and the main focus of micro-economic policy continues to be ‘human capital’ – education and training. The DTI is supposed to remain a quiet niche.

What this will mean, legislatively speaking, is that the DTI will get space for a couple of relatively non-contentious bills during the next few years but will not be expected to disturb any hornets’ nests. Would accountants sting if provoked?

Peter Mandelson, minister without portfolio and principal prime ministerial adviser on political strategy, is a frequent visitor to the City. New Labour has enough contacts both in the boardrooms and on the trading floors to know which issues will create opposition.

Beckett will, as a result, be diverted away from any course of action that looks as if it might be politically dangerous. Labour’s friendship with Rupert Murdoch does not just ensure the Office of Fair Trading is emasculated – it also implies that size (as in Big Accountancy) is no especial problem.

Yet Labour has got the regulatory bug. Beckett has recently paid a large (excessive, some say) amount of attention to replacing the gas and electricity regulators. And great effort went into ensuring the new chairman of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission is a ‘safe pair of hands’. Theorists in her private think tank New Economy like the idea that modern governments can accomplish their ends by regulatory mechanisms rather than spending taxpayers’ money.

It all adds up to Beckett doing a bit of post-Hampel regulatory work in terms of corporate governance – but keeping a weather eye out for any allegations that Labour is antagonistic to just rewards or adequate boardroom remuneration. As for accountants, the calculation is entirely political.

Under her regime the DTI will do nothing that will elicit a backlash or create a parliamentary row.

The lesson of the Countryside Alliance stands: New Labour backs down when middle class or professional opposition mobilises.

David Walker is chief leader writer of the Independent.

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