The Lowdown: From hostage in Libya to Howard's helper: the troubleshooter who says he's anybody's

He runs firms, he's helping the Tories and, at 66, he's getting married. As David James tells Abigail Townsend, life's never boring
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The Independent Online

David James, the corporate troubleshooter, evidently has a low boredom threshold. Just over a year since he suffered a stroke, his workload includes a review of government spending for Conservative leader Michael Howard; running the Litigation Control Group, an insurance business planning either a merger or stock market listing as well as a takeover of a rival company; and the executive chairmanship of the Racecourse Holdings Trust, the owner of 13 courses including Aintree, which is currently embroiled in an Office of Fair Trading investigation into the possibly monopolistic nature of racing.

Then there is his extensive art collection and a passion for opera and music: he recently returned from New York after taking in Tosca at the Met, and is now planning one of his twice-yearly trips to Salzburg for the city's music festival. There's his racing syndicate, Highclere, and the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent each year on gambling. There's rugby - he is spending the weekend in Scotland for the Calcutta Cup - and the National Tank Museum, where he is a patron. The list seems endless.

And, on top of all of that, James is getting married at the end of May for the first time, at the age of 66, to his partner, Caroline Webster. An impressive do is being planned: the service at St Paul's Cathedral followed by a reception in Westminster, with catering by the leading restaurant Aubergine. All of which will then be topped off by a swift week's honeymoon at the Cipriani hotel in Venice.

He jokes that his doctors like to make sarcastic comments about his "reduced" workload. But maybe because he now sees himself on the home straight, James thrives on a full life. The plan, currently, is to spend the next two to three years completing his work commitments before retiring to a yet-to-be bought house on the South Coast. As he admits, he returned to the office after his stroke only to clear his desk (before a call from a headhunter halted any effort to load up the cardboard boxes), so it's understandable if he's relishing this second wind.

His biggest commitment is the Conservative spending review, which got off the ground at the beginning of this year. The political connotations are about as subtle as a Tory slogan: he has been charged with seeking out savings across government, so helping the Tories build a platform of policies that they hope will return them to power. Dependent on his findings, tax cuts could be on the agenda, as Howard has hinted, though James is quick to play down such suggestions and talk instead about how savings will be ploughed back into services.

The review, centred initially on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, along with Health, Transport and Education, was moving along nicely until last week, when details from the Government's own review of the Civil Service, led by Sir Peter Gershon, head of the Office of Government Commerce, hit the papers. The interim report suggested 80,000 job cuts and the clawing back of up to £15bn to spend on health, education and policing.

James is insistent, however, that Gershon has not taken the wind out of the Conservative review. It has been "really rather helpful," he says.

"The very existence of Gershon is effectively an acknowledgement by the Government that they have costs without controls that need to be addressed. So they cannot argue they have been economic and prudent with their management of costs within the Civil Service. Instead of being the wicked Tories that are threatening the Civil Service, Mr Gershon has done us a great favour."

James has assembled a 30-plus team to work on the project, including six accountants on secondment from the big firms. The rest is made up of volunteers who have held senior roles in a range of fields: Civil Service, military, City, NHS, management and academia. A business school is also providing its services.

The project is due to continue for some time, and, should the Conservatives return to Government, the plans will need to be implemented. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that everyone, including James and the accountants, is doing it free of charge.

There are two reasons why James is prepared to forgo remuneration on a project that he estimates would otherwise cost £3m to £4m in fees. The first is simply that it needed doing. "I would have done it for Labour," he explains, "because it's a fascinating job. I'm anybody's."

Which, of course, is not strictly true. James has known Howard "for years" and is a confirmed Tory, until recently donating £10,000 each year to the party. That stopped when he was brought in to sort out the mess at the Millennium Dome (another project he did for free). He therefore feels that doing this project on a pro bono basis makes up for his lack in donations in recent years. "Governments don't pay," he says, adding: "At least they don't pay cash."

That sort of statement is grist to a cynic's mill but James quips he has a long wait ahead of him if he wants a knighthood. He concedes it could take Howard two attempts to get into power and thinks he has blown whatever slim chance he might have had with New Labour. Even if he were not a Conservative donor, he believes, the current Government, after getting to know him and his methods at the Millennium Dome, would not like him. "I'm regarded as being far too much of a pain the arse," he says. "They find me difficult to handle. They want someone more compliant."

James believes this is why he has never been given the opportunity to tackle "a big national mess" such as Railtrack or British Energy (though some might argue that the Millennium Dome fell into this category). Not landing "one of the really big executive jobs" in business is his main regret, he says, though not having the money to take up a place at Oxford runs a close second.

Regrets aside, however, he has managed to notch up an impressive CV. Highlights include helping to structure the rescue of the Lloyd's insurance market, being parachuted into the flailing Dan Air and uncovering fraud after the collapse of insurer Eagle Trust. He also had shareholders up in arms when his uncompromising methods left Eagle Trust creditors with £116m and investors with just 1p a share.

In addition, James was taken hostage in Libya after trying to negotiate the release of other captives, and put MI6 on to the trail of the Iraqi supergun after discovering steel pipes resembling a gun muzzle at an Eagle Trust subsidiary. He received his CBE for that piece of derring-do.

What rewards he will seek and receive for his latest series of adventures are as yet unclear. But, as he says: "I'm now busier than I have been for many years." And that, for the time being at least, appears reward enough.

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