Business View: Blair necessities put Brownite in the limelight

Dour, dull and loyal as a Highland terrier, which suits the future PM
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The Independent Online

364 days. Not even a full year. That was the time in office of Labour's fifth Trade and Industry Secretary, Alan Johnson. In the nine year since Tony Blair came to power we've had Margaret Beckett - who lasted only slightly longer that Mr Johnson before being moved to Defra - Peter Mandelson - sacked for his financial dealings just as he was starting to do some good - Stephen Byers - moved on after helping ruin Rover - and Patricia Hewitt - who was given Health for her sins, which were many.

Alan Johnson did little wrong in his year. Indeed, the education brief is seen as a promotion. By contrast, Trade has received little care and attention. In his short time in Victoria Street, AJ managed to stave off a rebranding of the department, launched an energy consultation (yup, another one) and dipped his toe into the shark- infested waters of world trade.

But, as with his cameo appearance as Work and Pensions Secretary, just as everyone was starting to say: "This chap's alright, I think he could do a good job," he was yanked off stage faster than The Ramones could play "Blitzkrieg Bop".

So what are we to make of Alistair Darling? He's most definitely a Brownite - indeed if you forget the physical, his resemblance to the Brooding Presence in waiting is remarkable. He is Scottish, dour, cautious to the point of dullness and loyal as a Highland terrier to the Chancellor. He is the proverbial safe pair of hands and many Westminster experts' favourite to be the first Chancellor under Gordon's premiership. As GB is likely to be PM within a matter of months, we could find that the tenure of Darling harbour will make "Blitzkrieg Bop" seem like "Bohemian Rhapsody". Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a reshuffle. No escape from political reality.

But even a brief life at Trade will not be brief enough to avoid one of the most tricky decisions of this Government - whether to start building new nuclear reactors. The energy review reports this summer, and with Tony Blair all for nukes, and Gordon Brown all for caution, Mr Darling will find himself torn. But even the most anti-nuclear government would find it hard to say no to nukes in an era of $75 oil and with Vladimir Putin controlling gas supplies for Europe. Look at Spain, where the Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialists said they would close all the Franco-era nuclear reactors and are now considering a massive volte face.

The other big mess Mr Darling is stepping into is the Post Office, where Allan Leighton and his crew are saying, on one hand, that the organisation is making superb profits, and on the other, that it needs over £2bn of cash or else it is bankrupt. A brave man would call Mr Leighton's bluff, but Alistair has shown at both Work and Pensions and Transport that he's a cautious operator. After all, you have to think of the next job. Especially when you are Trade and Industry Secretary.

Gieve and take for Bank

Sir John Gieve has lasted a few more days than the minister who took the blame for the mess he created - Charles Clarke. But what is the former permanent secretary at the Home Office doing as deputy governor of the Bank of England?

His job title says he is responsible for "financial stability". But interestingly, the Bank's role in financial stability has recently been redefined. From 1997, when banking regulation was hived off to the Financial Services Authority, until March, the Bank was "responsible for the overall stability of the financial system as a whole". In a new Memorandum of Understanding with the FSA and the Treasury, the Bank now "contributes to the maintenance of the stability of the financial system".

The Bank's spin doctors say there is no real change, the MoU merely codifies what has actually been happening. But Sir John, as a career civil servant, will know that nuances are everything.

j.nisse@independent.co.uk

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