Comment: No firecrackers on mergers policy. That's a relief

`In its last three years in opposition, Labour consulted every last corner of the business community about what it should do when it got to power. The answer, now that it has finally arrived is, er, yet more consultation'
After flash Gordon, flat Margaret. No one supposed the President of the Board of Trade would produce the same firecrackers as the Chancellor, but even so her first big policy speech setting out what New Labour means for business was not expected to be quite such a damp squib. In its last three years in opposition, Labour consulted every last corner of the business community about what it should do when it got to power. The answer, now that it has finally arrived is, er, yet more consultation, though this time on a grand scale and dressed up with the buzzwords of modern day business-speak. Stand by for the Benchmark for Britain, the Export Forum, the Competitiveness Summit and something called Flexibility Plus.

If this all sounds faintly redolent of the days when Michael "National Champions" Heseltine was running the show in Victoria Street, don't be too surprised. Although Mrs Beckett casually referred to Hezza's two competitiveness white papers as "political stunts", she is gaily preparing her own white paper on the subject, aided by a Competitiveness Audit, an Advisory Group on Competitiveness and a series of Competitiveness Working Parties. Get the point or do we have to Labour it? Competitiveness is going to be right there at the top of the agenda.

Beyond this all-embracing but hopelessly vague pledge, what else is there. Well, for the time being Mrs Beckett seems to be better at deciding what she isn't going to do than what she is going to do. Thus, there will be no changes in merger policy or the present burden of proof, nor will there be any changes to the bodies that execute competition policy beyond some tinkering at the edges with the OFT and MMC. For that much we can be thankful. It was Mrs Beckett who only six months ago wanted to force hostile bidders to demonstrate that their takeovers were in the public interest as opposed merely to not being against it.

Happily, wiser counsels have prevailed in the form of Gordon Borrie, who has been chairing Labour's committee of wise men examining competition policy.

Mrs Beckett's commitment to flexible labour markets, and her promise that support for the Social Chapter will not extend to importing German and French social security costs, are all be to welcomed. But her single most important announcement was that mergers policy will continue to be guided by competition considerations. Relief all round.

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