Outlook: Howells of protest

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IN POLITICS there is rarely smoke without fire and a match looks like it has been put to the Director General of Fair Trading. Kim Howells, our laddish Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, is furious that John Bridgeman won't play stooge to the Government's "rip off Britain" campaign.

Mr Howells fulminates that soft drinks are more expensive in pubs than Sainsbury's (well fancy that). Beer too. And he wants something done about it.

Mr Bridgeman takes the rather more sober view that no-one is forced to drink in pubs and therefore there isn't much of a case to answer. Before he knows where he is the DGFT has been turned over in the Sunday papers and fingered for retirement when his contract expires. Even though the denials come thick and fast from Victoria Street, the damage has been done and Mr Bridgeman is wounded, perhaps fatally, which is the objective of such exercises.

With his faintly prim manner and his dislike of being steamrollered by ministers on a mission, it is easy to see why Mr Bridgeman is not New Labour's cup of tea.

But if Mr Howells and his boss, Stephen Byers, cared to examine the record carefully, they would discover that Mr Bridgeman has stood up for the benefits of competition more often than they have. Mr Bridgeman's problem is that he has not done so sufficiently loudly where the cause is a populist one and there are votes to be won and lost.

It seems peverse that the DGFT should be winged in this way when he is about to get the most sweeping increase in his powers to fight cartels in the last twenty years. Mr Bridgeman shows every sign of relishing the prospect, suggesting he will make the most of his new found authority. If ministers doubt that he is the right man for the job, they should say so. Otherwise they should shut up.