Lang performs a double somersault

Another day, another hopelessly confusing message from the printing presses around at the Department of Trade and Industry. In as far as it is now worth even attempting to interpret the words of Ian Lang, the Government's decision to retain its golden shares in National Power and PowerGen appears to put the kibosh on any prospct of a transatlantic bid from Southern Company of Georgia.

The thinking goes something like this: when we decided not to let the two generators buy regional electricity companies last week we thought we'd made it plain that vertical integration was off the menu.

But then you go along in your transit van to Nat Power's registrars and take away 40 boxes full of shareholder information. Obviously what we saying was too subtle. Well here it is with both barrels. The businesses ain't for sale.

The other interpretation, of course, is that National Power is for sale providing the bidder is bold enough to create adequate competition in the generating market by breaking it into several chunks. True, this is a minority interpretation, but it is perfectly consistent with the double somersault Mr Lang manages to perform in the space of his eight-line statement.

The Government, for entirely understandable political reasons appears to have linked ownership of the electricity industry with its structure by blocking any bids for the two generators - from whatever quarter - until it is satisfied there is "adequate competition in the generation and supply markets".

It might have been simpler, and more honest, to say we don't want any contested bids for the two companies with all the attendant bad publicity this side of an election. But then a government supposedly committed to free markets couldn't possibly admit to such a simplistic explanation for using its golden share.

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