Outlook: Acid tests for Mrs Blockit

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The Independent Online
AFFICIONADOS of the ins and outs of government mergers policy are awaiting with some anticipation a couple of decisions that Margaret Beckett, President of the Board of Trade, is due to make over the next week. Two bids are awaiting her go ahead - the Texas Utilities offer for Energy Group, owner of Eastern Electricity, and the Investcorp bid for Watmoughs and BPC. Investcorp has already gone unconditional as to acceptances, while Texas is pretty much assured of success in the absence of a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Neither bid gives rise to any more than the slightest of competition concerns but, even so, there is some possibility they will be referred. In both cases, unions have raised the bogy of widescale job losses in the event of clearance, the theory being that because the bidders are offering more than rivals, they might seek to recoup the difference with more swingeing cost cuts. In the case of Texas, up to 5,000 jobs are alleged to be at risk, and 1,500 with Investcorp. Both bidders have given guarantees on this front, but Mrs Beckett is being asked not to trust them.

Repeatedly, Mrs Beckett has asserted that the only determinant of mergers policy should be competition. The question is whether she will stick to those guidelines in these cases or confirm her growing reputation in the City as someone who is temperamentally ill disposed to all mergers and takeovers, however benign. Will jobs and union pressure move back to centre stage in mergers policy, is Mrs Beckett a Mrs Blockit, or does she mean what she says? We'll see.