Outlook: Clubb vindicated

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NOBODY TOOK much notice of this column when almost alone in the British press it urged shareholders in First Choice to accept Kuoni's bird in the hand rather than wait for Airtours' two in the bush. This was odd because it didn't take much in the way of brain power to figure out that Airtours was paying for monopoly by offering such a big premium. As a consequence its proposals were almost bound to fall foul of airtraffic control - in the shape of the EC Competition Commissioner, Karel van Miert - before they could ever get off the runway.

Ignoring the blindingly obvious, shareholders and press alike chose instead to accept David Crossland's arrogant belief that he could somehow hoodwink the Commission into clearing him for take off.

This, it ought to be added, was not an entirely ridiculous assumption, since the Airtours chairman had done it once before with the British competition authorities. Back in the early 1990s Mr Crossland was able to persuade first Neil Hamilton to go against the OFT's advice and clear his bid for Owners Abroad, as First Choice was then called, and then the mighty Hezza after it turned out that the disgraced former MP for Tatton was offside because Mr Crossland was one of his most prominent constituents. Unfortunately for Airtours, Mr Crossland's influence doesn't seem to run quite so deep when it comes to the European Commission.

More unfortunate still, one of the officials dealing with the Airtours case formerly used to work at the Office of Fair Trading, where he had been involved in the original disregarded advice that Airtours be thoroughly investigated first time round.

The upshot is that First Choice shares now languish way below the value even of the original Kuoni terms and shareholders have learned the hard way that a bird in the hand is indeed worth more than two in the bush.

However, every cloud has a silver lining. As luck would have it, First Choice's enforced independence may prove no bad thing. Unlike Thomson, First Choice seems to be thriving once more and it should easily beat its profits forecast of pounds 60m for the year. Ian Clubb, First Choice's chairman, is thus doubly vindicated. He was right to recommend the Kuoni offer over Airtours, but if that was not to be, he's delivering the goods anyway.

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