Cruickshank may be the only survivor

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The Independent Online
What to make of the latest machinations at the Monopolies & Mergers Commission over the gas pipeline charges row, probably the most highly charged dispute between regulator and utility in the short history of privatisation? The fact that Clare Spottiswoode, the regulator, is being asked to give more evidence to the MMC at such a late stage does not look good for her, though it is just possible this is a formality.

If the MMC sends Ms Spottiswoode away with a bloody nose, she would surely have to resign, her reputation as the consumers' champion and her partial success with the first phase of domestic gas competition counting for naught. But she may have to go anyway. In recent weeks she has been castigating Labour's windfall tax, hardly a wise move if she wants to stay in the job.

As a Labour administration moves ever nearer, the chances of a regulatory bloodbath grows. Labour has made no secret of its unhappiness with Professor Stephen Littlechild, the electricity regulator. With the strong possibility that domestic power competition will degenerate into farce next year, the party may well bring forward its plans to merge the power and gas regulators into one. Industry gossip suggests Dieter Helm, from the consultancy group Oxera, could be in with an outside shout.

And what about Ian Byatt, at Ofwat? Scarcely a day goes by without another tough Ofwat statement criticising water company excess, but few expect this has done enough to repair the animosity between Mr Byatt and Labour's environment chief, Frank Dobson. Which leaves, er, just Don Cruickshank at Oftel. Past experience, including many an impressive spat with British Telecom, suggests he will land on his feet. Of the bunch, Mr Cruickshank stands the best chance of survival. And for a change, it won't be crony- ism that saves him. His reputation as an excellent regulator, steering a demanding but never excessive course, is well earned.