COMMENT : No excuses, Cockburn has let everyone down

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The Independent Online
Bill Cockburn is all misty-eyed at the prospect of returning to his roots at good old BT, but there are a fair few others rather less impressed with his behaviour. Shareholders in WH Smith for a start. They were promised all sorts of new beginnings when Mr Cockburn was brought in 18 months ago, and for a while the shares were borne aloft by recovery prospects. The skids have been under them again for a while now as the market began to realise that returning fuddy-duddy old WH Smith to its former glories was a tougher job than Mr Cockburn had perhaps imagined.

Then there are the WH Smith staff. They have had this burly Scot berating them about a culture of excuses only to see him quit less than half way through his four-year grand plan because he has got himself a better job. Mr Cockburn has caused a huge amount of disruption since he's been there. Fair enough if you are going to see at through, but to walk out with everything in such a mess? Tut, tut.

Jeremy Hardie, the WH Smith chairman, must also feel he has been legged over. He plucked Mr Cockburn from the relative backwater of the Royal Mail and gave him one of Britain's most high-profile retailers to manage. Now he must start his search all over again. It all looks rather shabby.

Mr Cockburn can talk all he likes of "irresistible offers and chances of a lifetime", but this is actually just a piece of rampant disloyalty. The star culture of professional sport seems to have infected not just the City, but the boardroom too. In business as in football, it seems all the benefit of the system now lies with the "star" name and very little with the organisation paying the wages. Mr Cockburn was talking a good game yesterday about his reasons for going - massive company, BT, couldn't resist it, old boy. The truth of the matter is that he has let everyone down. BT's chief executive, Sir Peter Bonfield, should perhaps be taking note of this old American adage: "Quitters never win". Just who does he think he's employing?

Kiss of life once more for the PFI

And here's to you Mr Robinson, Tarmac loves you more than you can know ... The resuscitation of the Private Finance Initiative has become an annual event in the political calendar. Yesterday it was the turn of Labour's new Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson, to apply the cardiac shock pads, nursemaided by Malcolm Bates, former deputy managing director of GEC.

Norman Lamont, who invented the PFI, tried giving it the kiss of life on several occasions and Kenneth Clarke did likewise, all to no avail. So the obvious question is why should Mr Robinson fare any better.

Already he has cleared away one of the hurdles to getting deals done - that every piece of Whitehall capital spending has to be tested against the PFI before being sanctioned. There were some more hopeful pointers in the reforms unveiled yesterday. Taking the PFI back under direct Treasury control might seem like an invitation for bureaucratic meddling. But provided the new chief executive he is bringing in from outside to run the taskforce is given his head then the gamble might just pay off.

Limiting tender lists to four bidders and allowing the private sector to recoup its bidding costs where the Government pulls the rug from under projects should also tempt a few more private operators into the water.

But the biggest problem for the PFI is the way it has become an integral part of the public spending control total. Mr Robinson has inherited a target of getting pounds 14bn worth of public projects funded through the PFI by the end of the next financial year. The schemes he wants to see come to fruition - new schools and libraries for instance - are not necessarily the ones that the private sector wishes to finance, except at rates of return which throw the whole concept of the PFI into question. Mr Robinson has, perhaps unwisely, staked his reputation on making the PFI work. As the song also says, heaven holds a place for those who pray.

The economic case in favour of smoking

Over the years the role played by Professor Richard Doll in discouraging people from smoking has perhaps been as great as any. It was he who originally discovered the medical link between lung cancer and tobacco, though it had long been suspected.

Unlike many others in the anti smoking lobby, however, he has never tried to argue the economic case against tobacco. There's not much point because in Britain at least, tobacco wins hands down, so much so that the Government should on economic grounds alone be positively encouraging smoking as a force for good in our society and giving the industry carte blanche to advertise as much as it wants.

This is not just because in Britain, unlike the US, the tax take on tobacco far exceeds the National Health Service's estimated expenditure on treating tobacco-related disease. In fact this doesn't really count as an argument in favour of the industry, for the effect of tobacco tax is like any other tax on consumption - it merely redistributes revenue from those who smoke to those who don't.

No, the real economic benefit of smoking - sorry to put it so crudely - is that tobacco kills people early. The proportion of a smoker's life taken up by unproductive, dependent existence, is therefore generally rather smaller than that of a non smoker. Certainly the health care costs over a lifetime of smokers is on average lower than non smokers, if only because smokers do not tend to live into an expensive dotage.

So please, let's not hear any more about the costs of smoking. In fact the costs are all the other way round. Society at large will end up paying through the nose for a less tobacco dependent society.

Barclays won't be allowed near NatWest

Did Barclays Bank deny that it was considering a bid for National Westminster Bank at the weekend or didn't it? Certainly its answers to the question were ambiguous enough to leave room for doubt. The possibility was not completely ruled out.

However, this is a bit like asking the BBC whether it would like to take over ITV. Of course it would. Who wouldn't like to takeover the main competition? Whether it would be allowed to is a different thing.

The truth of the matter is that Barclays would do it if given the slightest opportunity. But even though NatWest last week issued a profits warning, is clearly in a state of some disarray, and the backdrop is for consolidation in the banking industry, it is hard to imagine it would ever get the chance.

Indeed the idea is so ridiculous, given that the combined group would have more than a half of small and medium sized business lending, not to mention the personal banking and credit card market, that not even the most fanciful of corporate strategists could seriously think it possible for more than a few seconds. NatWest may be for the wolves. But don't expect Barclays to be allowed a hand in it.

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