Lib Dem city leader's bid for Rover gains speed, unhelped by party HQ

The West Midlands entrepreneur assembling a rival rescue bid for Rover was caught up in an embarrassing row yesterday with his political masters at Liberal Democrat headquarters.

John Hemming, a computer millionaire and leader of the Liberal Democrats on Birmingham City Council, said he now had the support of five "substantial backers" to save the Longbridge car plant, ranging from motor industry executives to corporate investors.

BMW has agreed to sell the plant to Alchemy Partners, which has warned that there will be substantial redundancies and cutbacks in production. However, Mr Hemming said his consortium aimed to preserve many more of the 9,000 jobs at Longbridge and retain greater car production.

"Once we have the consortium created we intend getting information from BMW, which enables us to put forward a business proposal - a proper business proposal, one that is a viable business that actually will maintain manufacturing in the West Midlands," he said.

But the Liberal Democrat's trade and industry spokesman, Norman Baker, issued a statement questioning how much longer Rover would be in business. Commenting on the Government's announcement that the Ministry of Defence is replacing 12 ministerial Vauxhall cars with Rover 75s, Mr Baker said: "This is a desperate attempt by the Government to do too little too late to help Rover."

Mr Hemming said: "I am trying to protect Rover. What Norman wants to do is his business, but his comments do not help my cause. I want to concentrate on the business aspects of this, not the politics."

A spokeswoman for Mr Baker replied that his remarks had been intended as "a light hearted dig at the MoD for their equipment problems" and at the Government. "We are obviously well aware of John Hemming's bid and good luck to him. This was in no way meant to undermine him."

BMW said it would do all it could to minimise job losses at Rover and pledged to co-operate with a government task force set up to regenerate the region. The pledge was made by the BMW chairman, Joachim Milberg, at a meeting in Munich with Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Mr Byers said: "It was a very constructive meeting and BMW has agreed that we now need to plan ahead and look to the future."

The company also said that it would consider other offers for Rover, although it has given Alchemy six weeks to negotiate a deal. A BMW spokesman dismissed suggestions that up to 50,000 jobs could be lost in the area, but said Longbridge would shed up to 3,000 jobs unless Rover sales picked up.

BMW has set aside £2bn to finance its withdrawal from Rover, meaning that a rival bidder would not face immediate funding difficulties.

Meanwhile, Tony Woodley, national official at the Transport and General Workers' union, warned Ford that any attempt to emulate BMW and end car production at Dagenham would be met with industrial action. Mr Woodley insisted that there were no signs that Ford wanted to end vehicle assembly at the Essex plant or close the site, but he would be recommending a mass walkout if it did.

Ford is reviewing its operations across Europe and there are fears that car assembly at the Essex works could be scaled down or even ended.

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