Outlook: Labour learns that businessmen are also mortals

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The Independent Online
If there was a motto pinned above Geoffrey Robinson's desk it would read "When in a hole, stop digging" since the more the Paymaster General tries to explain away his offshore trusts the deeper into the mire he seems to get. Yesterday, however, he put his personal travails to one side to help excavate his Government from a different sort of hole. This particular one is black and has been created by someone else who knows a lot about digging, Richard Budge of RJB Mining.

The idea that the Paymaster General can reverse the long-term decline of the coal industry by inviting Mr Budge into his office along with the chief executives of the three big generators and banging a few heads belongs in fantasy land. But it is what passes these days for Labour's energy policy. Until the Department of Trade and Industry decides what to do with all those applications for gas-fired stations, the bulge in the pipeline will get bigger and we will have policy on the hoof.

From a very New Labour attitude of benign neglect a matter of weeks ago the Government now believes it has an historic role to play as defender of the coal industry and saviour of miners' jobs, certainly at least this side of Christmas.

Quite why a member of the Treasury team has been selected for this task when the Government already has an energy minister and keeps insisting there is no question of throwing money at the pits is a minor mystery. But it probably has something to do with Mr Robinson's "can do" image as a businessman first and a politician second.

This is hardly the first time New Labour has displayed its quaint but naive faith in the ways of the business world. It has already been beguiled on several occasions. Need to lend some respectability to the welfare to work programme? Then get the man from the Pru to call. Need to bring some intellectual rigour to the tax and benefit review? Then bring on Martin "two brains" Taylor from Barclays Bank.

But, as Mr Robinson has demonstrated, businessmen are mere mortals too. The offshore trusts affair is certainly an embarrassment but thus far it is hard to pin much more on the Paymaster General than a charge of hypocrisy. Squirrelling millions away from the taxman while penalising those whose savings exceed pounds 50,000 is poor politics. There again, propping up the pits while denying launch aid for Airbus (another Robinson decision) looks like poor business.

The lesson is that businessmen and politics do not always mix, even for those invited into Labour's gilded inner circle. It will take a few more embarrassing episodes to drive home the message. Mr Taylor could provide the next one if he decides to buy NatWest and take several thousand bank workers out of the tax system and on to unemployment benefits.

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