MARKET REPORT: British Steel forges ahead on hopes of share buy- back

On a day when most blue chips were weighed down by the Government's acute difficulties over the arms-for-Iraq affair one of its earlier privatisation issues decided to put on a robust display.

British Steel has hardly covered itself in glory since it was floated seven years ago at 125p. The shares have been down to 43.5p and last year reached 188.5p.

Yesterday they gained 4p to 182.5p as stories of a share buy-back swirled around and the stock market became aware of analysts meetings today and tomorrow.

Although heading for a peak profit this year - around pounds 975m - British Steel has managed to divide its followers over its prospects for next year with estimates ranging from pounds 685m to pounds 1.3bn.

Margins have been under pressure, prices down from their peak and the European steel market is overstocked. But recent trading noises from Europe have been encouraging and British Steel could be scoring from currency movements.

It was one of only 14 blue chips to make headway. The rest of the market fretted about the political uncertainty, in effect providing a foretaste of its likely behaviour in the next election run-up.

The arms-for-Iraq debacle has created the type of nervous situation most investors dislike. There is already evidence that overseas fund managers, particularly European, are becoming increasingly reluctant to invest in London.

They do not want to be seen to be overweight in UK blue chips because they fear they will look foolish should the market lurch lower if the political situation deteriorates further and John Major is forced into an early election.

There are also worries that sterling could come under pressure which would put an additional strain on shares.

With New York, at least for the time being, abandoning its record-breaking chase the only crumb of comfort for the market was the continuing profit buoyancy offered by the current results season.

The FT-SE 100 index ended 36.1 points lower at 3,704.2. At one stage it was below 3,700. It peaked early this month at 3,781.3 with the Scott Report an important influence in the retreat. Government stocks gave ground.

Leisure shares drew comfort ahead of the findings, due today, of the Government's consultative paper on gambling.

Rank Organisation, hoping for a relaxation of bingo restrictions, gained 7p to 484p; Kunick, the amusement machines group, spun 1.25p higher at 25.75p.

But casino shares missed out; London Clubs fell 19p to 472p. Ladbroke, with takeover interest evaporating, retreated 6p to 180p.

Zeneca dipped 12p to 1,250p on worries about its breast cancer drug and Scotia Pharmaceuticals lost 49p (after 83p) to 558p when it terminated its distribution agreement for its diabetics treatment with Pharmacia. It expects to link with another group. Stanford Rook jumped 42p to 437p following comment on its TB drug.

Trafalgar House had another intriguing session, touching 40p but settling for a 1p gain at 39p. Stories Hong Kong Land has found a buyer for its 26 per cent interest mingle with yarns that it could mount a bid for full control. Turnover in the shares has been heavy and there is a strong suspicion Trafs will soon be the subject of corporate activity. Blue Circle Industries' heating reconstruction lifted the shares 7p to 359.

Despite satisfactory figures Abbey National and HSBC weakened and Barclays, due to report today and some hope announce a share buy-back, fell 23p to 771p. NatWest lost 32p to 679p.

First Choice, the holidays group, shaded to 68p as a line of stock, said to be between 7 and 11 million, hovered. Goodwin, an engineer, jumped 15p to 48p following a sharp interim profits gain, announced late on Friday. Pre-tax profit came out at pounds 539,000 against pounds 60,000.

Vaux, the brewer and hotelier, frothed up 7p to 280p on talk of a bid.

Highland Distilleries rose 5p to 359p on the expected whisky price increase.

Ferrum, an engineer, which had the dubious distinction of being the worst performing share last year, has stirred in the past few days on talk of a reverse take over. The shares gained 0.25p to 2.75p.

The company last year sold assets but was unable to clear its debts and chairman Mike Ayers has said a refinancing is necessary.

The current feeling is any deal will include an injection which could provide the struggler with a new lease of life.