Outlook: Kvaerner Govan

SO YOU thought New Labour was business-friendly, modern, free market-orientated and pro-competition - that it believes in the power of competition to deliver the best possible economic benefit for all, and that it would construct public policy to that end. Think again. When it comes to votes, this now not so new Government seems as prone to its old Labour ways as ever.

Largely unnoticed, the Ministry of Defence earlier this week published a gem of an announcement, telling us that the Kvaerner Group has been shortlisted to build six RoRo ferries. If successful, the press release adds helpfully, they would be constructed at Govan on the Clyde.

But there's more. George Robertson, the Defence Secretary (and Scottish MP) intends to award the order before the Norwegian owners of Govan have finished reviewing whether to close the yard.

"We hope they [Govan] will produce a convincing and competitive bid, and we aim to choose the preferred bidder by the autumn of this year," Mr Robertson adds helpfully.

If this doesn't amount to the strongest possible hint that Kvaerner has actually got the order, even though the formal tender process has yet to take place, the Government could have fooled every other yard desperately seeking this scarce work. Nothing, you understand, to do with the imminent Scottish Assembly elections. Och noo.

Strangely, there has been not a murmur of protest about this blatant piece of gerrymandering, either from the Scottish Nationalists, or indeed the Scottish Tories and Liberal Democrats. An embarrassed conspiracy of silence reigns supreme.

Because this is a defence order, the Government is immune from European rules which require a fair and proper competitive tender for the work.

No one can begrudge the Govan workers their jobs, and if this decision throws them a lifeline, good luck to them. But a Government that preaches business competition on the one hand and hands out business favours on the other can hardly be surprised if it is accused of hypocrisy.

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