City People

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TONY BLAIR is getting into the habit of making off-the-cuff remarks when he reads out a speech these days. At the tail end of last week the PM was presenting Business in the Community's 1999 Awards for Excellence when he read out: "Today's young high flyers are as likely to be mentoring a schoolchild as drinking in a champagne bar." He paused, looked up, and added: "At least, that's what it says here. There are parts of this speech written by a real idealist."

There was much hilarity amongst the business-folk in the audience at the Brewery, Whitbread's City conference centre, who knew all too well how much more popular the champagne bars remain than inner city playgrounds.

The winners of this year's awards, including overall winner BT, the Co- op Bank, Centrica, NatWest all the way down to the tiny Nambarrie Tea Company of Northern Ireland, were in some consternation, however, to find their prize was an oak sapling. Not only did the executives so honoured have to get the tree back to HQ without killing it, there was also the question of where to plant something that would turn into a mighty oak in due course. One was overheard to ask: "Do you need planning permission to plant an oak tree?"

MARTIN O'NEILL, chairman of the Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee, was in tip-top form during last week's grilling of no less than three cabinet ministers over the pounds 1bn Project Horizon computer fiasco.

As the hearing drew to a close and the three, Stephen Byers from Trade and Industry, Alistair Darling from Social Security and Alan Milburn from the Treasury, prepared to scuttle off for Prime Minister's questions, Mr O'Neill thanked them thus: "Gentleman, that was an exercise in joined- up answering, if not joined-up Government." The cabinet ministers grinned in unison but they may not be smiling quite so broadly when Mr O'Neill's committee produces its report.

MANY OF you will be as surprised as I was to hear that Nick Leeson, the nemesis of Barings, shares a strange and unusual passion with Howard Davies, the Financial Services Authority supremo.

I am referring to the fact that both are enthusiastic supporters of Manchester City football club - ie the one that Rupert Murdoch did not want - and never miss an issue of Kippax, the Man City fanzine.

Mr Davies was recalling the other day that the former Barings trader kept up a lengthy correspondence with the Man City newsletter on the decline and fall of Manchester's other football club.

On his return to Britain, the editor of the fanzine suggested arranging a get-together for the two Man City fans over a pint of beer. Mr Davies, you will not be surprised to hear, politely declined.

WHILE WE are on the subject of the FSA, it appears that some of the more intrepid FSA staff have taken to the boats as a way of avoiding the misery that the Northern Line's summer closure has afflicted on many unfortunate Canary Wharfers. I am told that on the Thames Riverboat you can get to Embankment in eight minutes. Lifejacket anyone?

THE FALLOUT from last week's OFT decision to refer the Whitbread bid to the Competition Commission left barely a cliche unturned.

Reactions range from "shattered" and "stunned" to "shaken to the core".

They tell me the reason for the shock comes right from the top and is a consequence of an encounter David Thomas, the battered Whitbread boss, had with the OFT's John Bridgeman. "There'd been a nod and a wink. The wheels were oiled by a tacit understanding. It's left us all gobsmacked," says my highly placed source.

A NEW patented compound of ceramics called Zeropa is being promoted as just the ticket to absorb those pesky electromagnetic waves generated by mobile phones: you know, the ones meant to cook your brain.

If you imagine that the Zeropa device is some clunky shield, you're dead wrong. Rather, it's a tiny (2cm long) replication of a ladybird.

The red and black bug-shaped device is meant, according to the slick brochure also shaped like a lady bird, to "significantly reduce the amount of radiation absorbed by the head".

Doubtless an unalloyed good, and here "City People" agrees with the sales pitch, since "the full extent of the potential harm caused by electromagnetic waves is not yet fully understood". A mere snip at pounds 24.95. Check it out at www.zeropa.co.uk if you can afford it.

WHILE THE PROS were charging up and down the south side of the Isle of Wight in the Champagne Mumm Admiral's Cup over the weekend, corporate Britain was racing in the same waters.

Vodafone not only had an entry in the final of the Industry Sailing Challenge, they were using it as a testbed for a new GSM-based tracking system called GNT.

While the bosses made that mean gin and tonic on a spectator boat, the workers were supposed to be both winning for the company and transmitting the positions of the fleet of 15 boats. Both in partnership and competition were Panasonic, who have developed a laptop called a Toughbook, over which marketing manager Richard Walters enthusiastically poured a bottle of fizzy water and then switched on again to show it was water resistant.

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