Burning a hole in Patricia Hewitt’s in-tray at Trade and Industry is the Office of Fair Trading study accusing lawyers (and, by implication, some accountants) of what used to be called ‘restrictive practices’ – anti-competitive behaviour.
Does Blairite modernisation require hard-nosed reform of the professions, even at the cost of riling them? There are, let’s not forget, some very highly placed lawyers in this government – the prime minister’s wife, the lord chancellor, the foreign secretary among them.
Reforming the professions is what may be called an insider’s issue. It rarely stirs the public, unless the professions are medicine and education.
Whether Patricia Hewitt picks up the OFT report and runs with it depends, above all, on how far she wants to distinguish herself and her department from Gordon Brown and the Treasury.
The Brownites think anything to do with productivity and competitiveness falls within their sphere of influence; they certainly would want a veto on proposals touching accountancy or corporate governance. But though she worked happily enough with Brown when she was at the Treasury, Hewitt knows she cannot afford too close an identification with Number 11 – especially if the Brown-Blair rivalry does become the big story of the second term.
Besides, she has political ambitions of her own.
If she could learn to be a bit less mechanical and earnest and a bit more ‘political’ she could become a contender for the top job itself.
The fate of solicitors, barristers and accountants thus depends, at least in part, on Ms Hewitt’s political drive. If she has a political game plan for herself, full-blooded reform of the commercial professions may be on the cards.
So far, however, she appears ultra-cautious. The OFT report may languish in that in-tray for a long while.
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