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People at the CBI: Lessons in productivity

AMONG the bevy of Cabinet ministers appearing at the Confederation of British Industry conference in Birmingham, the first over the top was the defence secretary George Robertson.

Appearing at a 7.30am breakfast briefing, he happily admitted that he was acting as the "warm-up man" for the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who was scheduled to speak an hour later. "I am supposed to reduce you to tears so he can make you cheerful again," quipped the defence secretary.

Mr Brown, meanwhile, arrived with a mea culpa. His strictures on the productivity of British industry, or rather the lack of it, are well-known but yesterday he was in conciliatory mood.

Noting that the CBI was cramming five Cabinet ministers, three world leaders and 25 sessions into a conference lasting a day and a half, he confessed: "I am not here to lecture you on productivity but to take some lessons from you."

PETER MANDELSON did not flinch from tackling head on the hot subject of the moment - the BBC's self- imposed ban on references to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's private life.

Mr Mandelson said he was delighted to see so many journalists at the CBI and in particular the correspondents of the BBC. He was sure they would report his every word without, of course, mentioning him by name.

Not content with laying into the dear old Beeb, Mr Mandelson then turned his merciless gaze to the Stock Exchange where, according to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, there is "an enormous amount of self- satisfaction".

Disregarding the obvious riposte about "pots" and "kettles", Mr Mandelson said that the Exchange "needs to take a good look at itself".

He went on to recount a story of how he visited Nasdaq, the high-tech US stock exchange, and was surprised to find there was no link to London.

"I asked Nasdaq why no link-up existed," Mr Mandelson told the assembled business leaders, only to be told that the Exchange "was not very interested".

We all know why the BBC doesn't figure among Peter's Friends any more. But I wonder what the poor old folks at the Stock Exchange Tower have done to upset him so?

DR CARLOS MENEM, the Argentinian president, left CBI delegates wondering exactly what sort of medicine he practised.

Addressing the pre-conference dinner on Sunday night he explained that it had been necessary to carry out "major surgery with no anaesthetic" on the Argentine economy when he came to power in 1989.

"Even though the pain was terrible, we had to operate," he said. So with Latin America in financial turmoil, who else might be in need for some Menem-style medical attention, enquired the CBI's director general, Adair Turner, with a tremble in his voice. "Brazil and Mexico" for starters, came the swift reply.

Ouch. Stand by your beds, this is going to hurt.

SPEAKING of medical matters, the inventors of the Pfizer Riser, otherwise known as Viagra, were up in Birmingham to brief journalists on the pill that does wonders for your prowess.

And what was the venue? The Swallow Hotel, of course.

DELEGATES in Birmingham have discovered an exciting new parlour game - counting the number of plugs for McKinsey every time a Cabinet minister speaks.

George Robertson managed no less than two glowing references to the ubiquitous management consultants, while Peter Mandelson paid homage to them once.

Can they really be that good, or it is something to do with the fact that the CBI's Adair Turner was once a McKinsey man himself? Perish the thought...

ONE MAN whose number one priority is to make UK business more competitive is Sir Anthony Cleaver, who was yesterday appointed president-elect of the Institute of Management (IM).

Sir Anthony is chairman of AEA Technology, and amongmany other roles chaired the Royal Society of Arts Inquiry into "Tomorrow's Company".