Morton on the private road

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a busy week for the indefatigable Sir Alastair Morton. Yesterday, in his role as joint chairman of Eurotunnel, he escorted Lady Thatcher through the Channel tunnel on one of a series of courtesy visits between now and the official opening by the Queen and President Mitterand on May 6.

The former prime minister was only the latest in a series of politicians with whom Sir Alastair is rubbing shoulders with and glad-handing.

Last Tuesday, he was at the Mansion House, introducing the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, to a City audience as they jointly extolled the attractions of the less-than- happily named Private Finance Panel of 15 unpaid businessmen, ranging from Neville Simms, chief executive of Tarmac, to Hugh Jenkins, chief executive of Prudential Portfolio Managers.

This merry band are trying to break down the barriers between private-sector investors on the one hand and government spending departments on the other. The idea is to raise private money and management to build roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and the like, so cutting the strain on the public purse in return for letting some of the profit go.

The Lord Mayor's champagne duly quaffed, Sir Alastair skipped across town to appear two days later at the Institution of Civil Engineers, tucked away behind the QEII Centre at Westminster.

There he graciously played second fiddle to John Smith, the Opposition leader, at a meeting of the Labour Finance and Industry Group to discuss - guess what? - private finance for public projects.

Sir Alastair remained studiously neutral on the politics - as well he might, for on Wednesday he is due to return from a flying trip to Tokyo to tell the left-wing Tory Bow Group all about - that is right - private finance for public projects.

The surprising point, in view of the political knockabout, is that Labour are not trying to recruit their own team of business networkers. Instead, they are happy to latch on to Sir Alastair's motivators.

He explained: 'My concern is to break down the blancmange. I don't think there is terribly much difference between the parties, expect that the Labour Party doesn't want to give up overall responsibility, and the Government says that the market must decide. We say that the parties to the deal simply have to agree.'

Labour, discomfited by the accusation that it is merely stealing the Tories' clothes, is at pains to claim that it was first with the idea of drawing private money into public schemes, some 17 years ago.

Strange, I seem to remember that Lord Spens, who became tarred with the Guinness brush, dreamed up a tax-saving wheeze in 1972 for GEC to lease wagons to British Rail. Any advance on that?

(Photograph omitted)