Now it's turf wars for Byers

Foreign Office seminar on European business links adds to pressure on the embattled Trade Secretary
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The Independent Online

The Foreign Office will this week host a high-powered seminar - attended by up to 250 business leaders - promoting trade with Europe. It is a move seen in Whitehall as staking a claim to a large part of the territory covered by the Department of Trade & Industry.

The conference, called Business and the New Europe, will feature a recorded video message from the Prime Minister and a keynote address by Peter Mandelson, the former Trade Secretary now at the Northern Ireland office. It is sponsored by KPMG, the accountants.

It will boast presentations from six ministers - two of whom are in the Cabinet - four ambassadors and the former European Commissioner Lord Brittan. Topics will include entrepreneurship, financial services, better reg- ulation and the skills agenda.

Keith Vaz, the Minster for Europe, told the Independent on Sunday that the Foreign Office had never held a trade seminar in the UK before. "This will be a big first for us," he said. "We have the full support of the Prime Minister in this, and this fits in with the agenda that he has set us."

However, the conference is bound to be seized upon by critics of Stephen Byers, the under- fire Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, as another intrusion into his department's role.

The DTI has already found the Treasury taking the lead in areas of financial regulation - particularly to do with mortgages - leading to a Cabinet turf war between Mr Byers and Gordon Brown, the Chancellor.

Both the Department of Education and Employment and the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions have expanded their activities into areas once filled by the DTI.

"The DTI has long been a 'debatable land' in government," a former senior official told the Independent on Sunday. "However, in recent months the tanks have been rolling on to the DTI lawns."

The increasing activity of the Foreign Office in the trade arena comes as Mr Byers has faced attack over his failure to spot that BMW was about to exit Rover and sell the business to Alchemy, the venture capitalists. Though the Trade & Industry select committee said Mr Byers could not have foreseen BMW's actions, it said he should have been more vigilant.

Even Mr Vaz admits this is an area where it would normally be expected that the DTI would take a lead. However, following the recent summit of European leaders in Lisbon, the Foreign Office has been actively promoting European trade, with John Battle, himself a former trade minister, leading a delegation to countries like Poland and Hungary that will join the European Union in the next few years.

The conference could also have a pro-euro slant. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, and Mr Mandelson are both strongly in favour of sterling joining the single currency, as is KPMG, whose former international head, Lord Sharman, founded Britain In Europe, the pro-euro lobbying group.