Outlook: Mrs Beckett scores one out of two

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The Independent Online
It was a day of mixed fortunes yesterday for Margaret Beckett. The President of the Board of Trade must rightly have felt rather pleased with herself as she woke up to the news that Bass is selling off 1,428 pubs - the best part of one-third of its estate - to a trio of entrepreneurs best known for bringing pizzas and French fast food to the masses.

She may have been feeling a little less sprightly when the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report into the National Express takeover of two rail franchises was published a few hours later.

To take brewing first, Mrs Beckett has now been vindicated entirely in her decision to block the Bass takeover of rival brewer Carlsberg Tetley, a deal which would have given it almost 40 per cent of the market.

In order to obtain regulatory clearance, Bass had offered to dispose of a large chunk of its pub estate. However, yesterday's deal suggests it was contemplating such a move anyway for commercial reasons. Add in the rationalisation of brewing capacity that has also taken place since the block was put on Bass and the picture is one of a more efficient production and more competitive retailing of beer without the need for one company to control four in every ten pints pulled.

The MMC's decision to wave through National Express's acquisition of Central Trains and ScotRail provided it disposes of its competing Scottish bus company, Citylink, makes less pleasant reading. Mrs Beckett referred both bids against the advice of the Director-general of Fair Trading, John Bridgeman. In the case of ScotRail, he actually suggested that any concerns could be overcome through the sale of Citylink. All in all, then, Mrs Beckett has wasted six months of everyone's time.