Law: Enter the spin king

The legal world reflects on the new head of the DTI.
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The Independent Culture
LAWYERS DON'T quite know what kind of spin to put on the appointment of the new Secretary of State for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Some are telling their clients that Peter Mandelson's arrival is a return to a consistent competition policy, while others fear a somewhat interventionist or "meddlesome" approach. Last week's news that the Ladbrokes- Coral takeover had been turned down has not helped. And trade union lawyers are equally confused.

Mr Mandelson's reputation as a pro-business politician gives rise to fears that he may be planning a dilution of the Fairness at Work White Paper.

But, equally, others are comforted by his performance this week at the Labour Party Conference where he made commitments to the minimum wage, the Working Time Directive and the Social Chapter.

Among lawyers, Mr Mandelson is an enigma - a difficult minister to second- guess.

Stephen Sidkin, a commercial law partner at Fox Williams, who has advised on referrals to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, says: "You don't make friends doing the job he did, and I'm not sure that he is going to make many more in the job he is doing now."

While Michael Grenfell, a senior competition lawyer at the City law firm Norton Rose, says that no one is expecting the secretary of state to deliver a "soft" competition policy.

Instead, Mr Grenfellsuggests: "It is clearly hoped that there will be more consistency and clarity about competition policy than there was under Margaret Beckett. She overturned three Office of Fair Trading (OFT) recommendations and referred three mergers to the MMC against OFT advice in her first few months of office."

Mr Grenfell, who spent 18 months on secondment to the DTI's competition policy division, argues that it would be naive not to take account of Mr Mandelson's "political baggage. The wing of the party that Mr Mandelson comes from is more comfortable with competitive, free markets..."

But Mr Sidkin warns: "We had Michael Heseltine who was prepared to intervene `breakfast, lunch and tea'; then we had Mrs Blockit and now we have Mr Mandelson who may be taking political decisions."

Stephen Cavalier, head of employment and trade union lawyer at Thompsons, says that trade union lawyers are worried that Mr Mandelson may cap unfair dismissal compensation and attack the rights of workers' representatives.

But Edward Cooper, head of employment at the TU law firm Russell Jones & Walker, does not think that Mr Mandelson's pro-business profile will necessarily mean changes to the Fairness at Work White Paper. He says: "We know we are not going to get an easy ride from him but then I don't think anyone expected a particularly easy ride from his predecessor."

Whatever the lawyers' perception of the former spin doctor, few are saying that he is not up to the job. One source close to the DTI said: "What I have heard on the grapevine is that officials at the DTI find him very demanding, and that he won't tolerate slipshod recommendations. He wants to understand all the reasoning, and is very penetrating and probing."

It sounds like the sort of spin that the new Secretary of State will be more than happy to hear about himself.