Jeremy Warner's Outlook: A wholly predictable energy crisis looms - but at least it might make the case for nuclear

Taxman smiles as stock market surges; Gadget Shop trial's point of principle
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The Independent Online

Crisis, what crisis? The Government can hardly be blamed for the weather but it is responsible for the country's energy policy. Having denied for months that we are in danger of running out of gas this winter, there is a sudden sense of panic in the Downing Street air now that the temperature has begun to drop.

Those who warned of trouble ahead, such as the CBI's Sir Digby Jones, were accused of being scaremongers. Now we know that Tony Blair was sufficiently concerned to convene a secret meeting with industry representatives nine days ago to discuss just such an eventuality.

Ministers wanted to find out how much big industrial users could cut their consumption by in order to keep the home fires burning and, second, what impact the resulting decline in output would have on the economy. Consultants have now been hired to crunch the numbers.

The National Grid reckons that in the event of a Siberian-style winter, the like of which Britain experiences only once in every 50 years, industrial consumption would need to halve for the best part of two months. Even a one in ten type winter would require a 30 per cent reduction in demand for 40 days. The Met Office, for its part, reckons there is 65 per cent chance of a colder than average winter this year and a 35 per cent chance of it being a severe one.

Could the Government have done more to prepare for this eventuality? Yes, it could. Indeed, the looming power crisis this winter was entirely predictable. Ministers have known for years that North Sea supplies were running out, turning the UK into a net importer of gas.

Yet no serious effort has been made to ensure greater diversity in energy supply beyond measures to encourage renewables. To the contrary, the fact that Britain relies more and more on gas for her energy needs is largely down to government policy, which deliberately or otherwise, encouraged a dash for gas among power generators.

Extra gas storage and import capacity is being built but it will not be on stream in time for this winter. Meanwhile, the additional facilities that have been built, such as National Grid's LNG terminal on the Isle of Grain, lie idle because the shippers have found they can get higher prices in Spain and America. Those, however, are the laws of the market.

The prospect of a three-day week for industry will not warm the cockles of Mr Blair's heart any more than the idea of householders running out of gas to fire their central heating systems. Whether we run out or not, still higher fuel bills are a certainty. If there is a small sliver of consolation for the Prime Minister, it is that an energy crisis this winter will make the case for new nuclear build unassailable.

Taxman smiles as stock market surges

Corporate coffers are overflowing with cash as never before, sending share prices to four-year highs and fuelling an outbreak of frenzied deal-making. Even the Chancellor is being caught in its warm afterglow, with tax receipts defying the economic gloom to reach record levels. The public finances were pushed sharply back into the black in October after a massive 23.4 per cent year-on-year increase in company tax receipts.

The Chancellor has accused oil producers of being responsible for the economic slowdown, yet on one level he has every reason to be grateful for the way they've squeezed oil supply. The major feature of the boom in corporate tax receipts is the surge in profits among North Sea oil companies, thanks to the soaraway oil price.

In the City, the increase in corporate tax receipts is being likened to the arrival of the seventh cavalry, just in time to rescue the Chancellor from having to admit to a breach of the golden rule in the pre-Budget report two weeks from now.

With new records expected to be broken in January, another peak month for corporate tax receipts, it seems that the Chancellor didn't have to move the goal posts to stay within the fiscal rules after all. The Chancellor was ridiculed when he lengthened the economic cycle in what looked like an attempt to ensure the numbers still added up. It now appears he would have been within the rules anyway.

Is this another instance of the Chancellor's fabled luck or, as he would claim, renewed evidence of first-class forecasting skills? A bit of both really. The Treasury has all along said that eventually corporate and City tax receipts would come to its rescue, and so it has proved. Yet perversely, this is more a sign of economic weakness than strength. One of the reasons why corporate profits are surging is that nobody's investing very much. That cannot be good for the long-term health of the economy.

The stock market is similarly buoyed by a wealth of buy-backs, dividends and deals. When you don't think it's worth investing the surplus in the business, what else is there to do with the money? Either give it back to the shareholders or spend it on antiques, seems to be the answer. Since the alternative is to give it to the taxman, it is small wonder that everyone is looking around with such desperation for the next deal. It's good for the Chancellor and it's good for the City deal-makers, yet what it says about the long-term future is a different matter altogether.

Gadget Shop trial's point of principle

The question on everyone's lips about the Gadget Shop trial, which has become one of the finest spectacles of City mudslinging in years: why did they do it? Why on earth was this law suit ever brought?

As a case study in washing your dirty linen in public, this one takes some beating. From Billy Big Bollocks to drunken rows in public lavatories, the case has had it all. The press has had a field day, but it could scarcely have been much fun for anyone involved.

As Philip Green, who perhaps inevitably has had a cameo role in the proceedings, once put it: "I pay my PR people to keep me out of the press, not in it." Yeah, right, but in general it is true that the super-rich prefer anonymity to the unpredictability of celebrity.

So what's the story here? Why pursue a case which is bound to bring such a high degree of attention to what would normally remain a private commercial matter. It is not as if anyone needs the money. One leading retailer depicts it as "willy-waving" by famous millionaires with more money than sense. Yet this fails to reflect the significance of the case. Beneath the recriminations and colourful language there are serious points of principle at stake here.

These involve the rights of minority shareholders. It is a fundamental principle of securities equity that all shareholders should be treated the same. Even in publicly quoted companies, it frequently gets ignored, with the company run to serve the interests of the controlling shareholder rather than all of them. Yet in private companies, which the Gadget Shop was, it happens all the time. This is not something to be taken lightly. Deliberately disadvantaging the minority is a form of theft. It is important, even in private companies, that the principle is upheld.

The allegation here is that Sir Tom Hunter and his sidekick Chris Gorman used the Gadget Shop's name, time and money to pursue an attractive business opportunity, namely the acquisition of Birthdays, but eventually turned round and bought the company for themselves, to the consternation of other shareholders in the Gadget Shop, who thought the deal was being done on their behalf.

I don't want to pre-judge the outcome. That's for the courts to decide. But this is no laughing matter. It is self evidently wrong to abuse other people's capital. Some entrepreneurs seem to have a blind spot when it comes to such matters. That the point is being tested in this case is not willy-waving at at all, but an act of some bravery given the risk to pocket and reputation.

j.warner@independent.co.uk

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