Magazine article The Spectator


Magazine article The Spectator


Article excerpt

A decade ago, as president of the Board of Trade, I was responsible for competition policy. I could refer or not refer. I could accept advice or reject it. In the background -- but not far away -- were Parliament and public scrutiny.

How times change. The Office of Fair Trading is now its own creature. Ministers have washed their proverbial hands;

quangocrats rule. So what is going on in this citadel of devolved power? For months we in the press and publishing world have been worried about a forthcoming OFT opinion about our traditional method of distribution, whereby wholesalers are granted a monopoly of defined areas, provided they distribute publications to all outlets; a system that is to the advantage of the consumer who may enjoy magazines of modest if growing circulation, and which protects small newsagents. You will appreciate the importance of the cause. After months of tetchy dialogue the case officer leaves. A disappointing decision is expected. Sir John Vickers, director-general, leaves at the end of September. The due day dawns and the 'no news today' signs are up. No one knows why.

Friday says goodbye to the director-general amid a rising tide of rumours about internal dissent. What a way to treat a major British industry. When I was there, DTI officials wanted to submit the ailing Observer to this time- and business-consuming machinery. I refused and allowed its sale to proceed. I knew what delay could have done to an important organ of public opinion. But in those days ministers were ministers.

Off to shoot partridges with Christopher Bland for the first outing of the season.

I should have submitted myself to a refresher at shooting school. Humiliated by William Waldegrave's proficiency, I was reminded of earlier embarrassments. At the end of each drive it is usual for the guns to collect up their birds. This never took long in my case, so to convey an atmosphere of activity I took to collecting up my spent cartridge cases. It was a short step to calculating birds shot for cartridges fired. After remorseless bullying from Max Hastings, slowly but steadily I climbed from one in ten to one in four. On Saturday disaster struck. I was down to one in 31. On the last drive out I sighed with relief and clocked in with one in four again.

Monday and it's off to the Tory party conference. Blackpool is special. Its heart is working class and proud of it. It's authentic, in your face, no mucking about. Have a good time, luv. Millions of our fellow citizens do and did. The Tories will never govern Britain from their southern redoubts without those people, or ever deserve to.

Iwalked from the Imperial to the Winter Gardens. There were changes. The hotel foyer at lunchtime was virtually deserted. I remember it being packed. The Palm Court offered tables aplenty. The fringe has taken over. Earnest groups of activists submit themselves to an array of pressure groups. I set off for the conference. The glistening fascias and the crammed carparks have long been there, but here was something different. The stately elegance of a Rolls-Royce with an RAJ number-plate hinted at past imperial glories.

Next, Claridges, with three of the letters hanging askew as though curiously reluctant to permit too close an association with its London namesake. A large umbrella is approaching me with Oliver Letwin underneath. Curious, I thought, as it's not raining:

perhaps this pessimism is symptomatic of the Tory malaise. …

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