City & Business: Major's barmy army goes way over the top

Unlike the England football team, Michael Heseltine must be rather relieved he's 10,000 miles away, trying to flog everything but chopsticks to the Chinese. Three weeks ago, after a fortnight's holiday in the Far East, I flew in the opposite direction, touching down only to find the lunatics still in charge of the asylum.

One might as well be a green, boggled-eyed visitor from Mars in trying to make sense of Her Majesty's Government. Just take the antics of the inmates in this month of May, unfolding weekly like episodes of Marty Feldman meets Absolutely Fabulous.

Week One: a trouncing in the local council elections became "a victory", "a turning point in Conservative fortunes". It was fewer seats lost (just) than last year, you see - no matter that the Tories were defending just a fraction of the number this time.

That was just a prelude to the zany rewriting of history we saw the following week: "Yes it hurt. Yes it worked." Oh really? That's what all the pain's been about? Some tough but much-needed medicine, doses carefully injected, to allow us the sweet joys of recovery.

Negative equity? Boom and bust? Broken tax promises? It was not their fault at all. Nothing to do with raiding the pre-election coffers, nor sterling's crash and the ERM debacle that (accidentally) gave us this export-led, but no feelgood factor recovery. Naturally, it was all planned, right down to the last lost billion.

This week, they went over the top again, tin helmets, strait-jackets, Blazing Saddles and all. The British Eurosceptic Expeditionary Force (BEEF), as my colleague John Lichfield on our daily sister paper so deliciously termed it, wrapped itself in the flag and bravely withdrew to a bunker in Downing Street.

Michael Heseltine might well reflect on the irony. While England and British business were scoring goals on and off field in Peking, his Great Leader back home was packing up his ball in a tantrum and refusing to play.

Much has been written and said of the huge markets for British business in the booming tiger economies of the Far East, of the massive untapped potential of China. Sadly for little Englanders (and Mr Heseltine is not one of them), we cannot up sticks and paddle our little island canoe half way round the world.

The fact is that most of our trade is done with the European Union - 57 per cent of our exports against just 3 per cent to the Far East, including Japan and China, according to the latest figures in the 1996 Annual Abstract of Statistics. Of the total, pounds 17.6bn went to Germany, our most important trading partner (ahead of the US) and staunchest critic over the beef affair.

The sadder fact is that this Government's mishandling of BSE has become Europe's beef crisis, too, perhaps on a greater scale. Beef sales in health- conscious Germany have fallen 45 per cent and in France, Spain and Italy, far more choosy about their food than we, by 25 to 60 per cent. Yet are we suddenly to believe that the crisis of confidence is all their fault and, like UK home owners' Bye-bye Sweet Equity worries, nothing to do with John Major at all?

Of course not. Nor mischievous claims that opposition to a relaxation of the ban on cattle products is merely a Machiavellian ruse to keep up the drooping Dutch sperm industry.

Who has really lost the plot in all this? Last week, Sir Bryan Nicholson, the outgoing president of the Confederation of British Industry, got it exactly right. "This spring has brought forth a flock of cuckoos," he said of the "churlish xenophobia" of the Eurosceptics who are embarrassing British businessmen turning a crust with our European partners.

The Prime Minister shared Sir Bryan's platform, but he clearly had his ears peeled for the last Union Jack squeaking in frenzy from the election cupboard.

The jury is still out on whether this latest Madness of King John will do British business and jobs lasting harm. Certainly, non-cooperation in the short term might block some European measures Britain and its industry actually want.

Above all, though, the jingoism, lack of BSE strategy and even one iota of beef humility is a bad advertisement for Britain. And not only in Europe. The billions of Far Eastern investment, from Japan, Korea and Taiwan, that has flooded here has come to a Britain that is part of a European Union not a blustering bulwark against it. If that disappears, and European consumers turn further against us, Mr Heseltine will have to sell an awful lot of (German-owned) Range Rovers to the Chinese to make it up.

Taking Liberty

In all the European kerfuffle, it may have hardly been noticed that retail sales actually showed the biggest first-quarter rise for three years. Trusty Marks & Spencer led the retail sector up, with a record profit just short of pounds 1bn.

How untimely then that Liberty, the Regent Street store famed for its patterned prints and paisley scarves, should choose this week to shut all of its 20 provincial branches.

That might perhaps be taken as a warning to other investors, in recently floated Harvey Nichols, for example. Replication of well-known London brands, feeding on a well-heeled West End and tourist clientele, is not that easy on fiercely competitive high streets up and down the land.

Nuclear fallout

So, as we report in our cover story, the countdown starts to the sale of the family plutonium. Perversely, as with Railtrack, the inevitably critical press will only ensure more success for those investors who take the plunge.

The upside for British Energy - and there is a great deal, as chief executive Bob Hawley explained to me on Friday - will be ignored to ensure the issue gets away at a healthy premium.

BZW's latest thoughts give a key insight. Its "reasonable basis" valuation of pounds 1.7bn-pounds 2.1bn goes largely by the board after taking into account fears it believes unjustified.

On Tuesday, ABN Amro Hoare Govett, British Energy's own broker, produces a report with an even more pessimistic view. Part of City horse-trading, no doubt, but rather at odds with Dr Hawley's rosier view?

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Life and Style

Between the 25-27th of July, Earls Courts’ gloomy interior was doused in shades of bubblegum and parma violets as it played host to Hyper Japan, the venue’s annual celebration of anime, art, Kawaii street fashion and everything that encompasses the term J-culture. Bursting with Japanese pop culture and infused with Asian street food Hyper Japan is an invigorating culture shock that brings cosplayers, creatives and gamers like myself from across the globe.

Life and Style
lifeDon't get caught up on climaxing
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Arts and Entertainment
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)
newsBloomsbury unveils new covers for JK Rowling's wizarding series
News
scienceScientists try to explain the moon's funny shape
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

1st Line Support Technician / Application Support

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider of web based m...

Team Secretary - (Client Development/Sales Team) - Wimbledon

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Secretary (Sales Team Support) - Mat...

Accountant / Assistant Management Accountant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an Assistant Management Ac...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star