President who trades on charm; profile; Ian Lang

While less flamboyant than his predecessor, the new man at the DTI is likely to be equally persuasive. Paul Routledge reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"IT IS, I suppose," muses Labour's trade and industry spokesman, Brian Wilson, "a case of the blond being replaced by the bland. Lang has flair without substance. He will bring nothing to the job. He is administrative competence, end of story."

This is a rather harsh verdict on the new Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Ian Lang, who has succeeded Michael Heseltine in the glass tower in Victoria Street and will also keep his archaic title of President of the Board of Trade.

But it has proved a common theme of the instant profile writers. Lang is invariably described as urbane, patrician, unflappable and slightly grey: a safe pair of hands rather than a mace-waver.

He steps into a very considerable shadow, of course, and it is hard to believe that "Hezza the Prezza" will not be sorely tempted to continue intervening in the work of his old department - "the job I love" - particularly as he retains overall suzerainty over competitiveness and deregulation. Heseltine, when he arrived at the DTI, famously promised to intervene in industry before breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Not only must Lang fill the void created by Heseltine's promotion to Deputy Prime Minister, he has also to recreate the DTI, which now takes on much of the work done by the late lamented Department of Employment. Apart from being the cheerleader for industry and commerce, he will be responsible for pay, industrial relations and business links with science and technology.

This massive responsibility, which places him sixth in the Cabinet pecking order, is unlikely to faze a man who would probably have made a fine colonial administrator, had he not been sent home a decade ago to run his own country - at the Scottish Office. Lang is that unusual beastie, a hereditary entrepreneur. He comes from a long line of insurance brokers, an old Renfrewshire family with strong shipping interests.

His lack of a Scottish accent is easily explained. He was educated at prep school in Montrose, east Fife, but then went to Rugby School and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. There, he joined John Cleese in the Footlights rather than the ambitious Tory wannabes of his generation. He was, the story goes, a script writer for the satirical television show That Was The Week That Was. However, Gerald Kaufman, film buff and formershadow Foreign Secretary, who certainly did pen gags for TW3, cannot remember him ever attending a script writers' conference. Perhaps he did, but nobody noticed.

It was only after leaving university, while making his way in the family profession of insurance broking, that he joined the Young Conservatives at the ripe old age of 24. He was blooded as a parliamentary candidate in Central Ayrshire in the general election of 1970, and in more sanguine fashion at Glasgow Pollok four years later, before entering the Commons as Maggie Thatcher's man who took back Galloway from the Scottish Nationalists in 1979. They have been breathing down his neck ever since. His majority over the SNP at the last election was down to a wafer-thin 2,468, and he confided to friends at the time his deepest fears that his political career was over.

But he was always ministerial material. Two years after he arrived at Westminster, he was appointed a parliamentary whip. In that political greenhouse he first met and worked closely with John Major. Those strong bonds have endured.His first taste of office was at Employment, in February 1986. But as one of the dwindling band of Scots Tory MPs, he was drafted to the Edinburgh home of the Scottish Office, as Under-Secretary responsible for industry and home affairs in September 1986, rising to Minister of State a year later and to Cabinet rank as Scottish Secretary in 1990.

In that post, his qualities came under the fiercest scrutiny. In particular, his putative "centre-Left" qualifications were sometimes found wanting. The surprise is that anybody should have been surprised. He was always a hanger and a supporter of the poll tax. He shed crocodile tears over the closure of Ravenscraig steel works, the last bastion of heavy industry in Scotland. He was a lukewarm devolutionist, who switched smartly to the defence of the union with the rest of the UK when it became politically opportune. He wound up and sold off the Scottish new towns. He only backed down from privatising Scottish water, his nation's forests and the islands' shipping link, Caledonian Macbrayne, in the face of monumental public protest.

Bill Speirs, deputy general secretary of the Scottish TUC, recalls that Lang was "always charming" in his dealings with the unions - they still have such things north of the border - but never gave anything away. "He stuck to his civil service brief. It was very difficult to get him to move from the government line. That made meetings a bit of a non-event." By contrast, talks with his hard-right junior (now successor) Michael Forsyth were never dull. "You might come out worse off, or better off, but you could actually have a discussion and he would listen, whereas with Ian Lang you got the party line and that was it."

The one issue that really excited Lang, it seems, was inward investment. "The real emphasis all the time was attracting inward investment," recalls Speirs, "rather than the somewhat unglamorous task of supporting indigenous business."

Pursuing this aim, on a bigger canvas, is clearly high on the new President's agenda. His first substantive public appearance will be at the QEII Conference Centre in Parliament Square next week, when he will be centre-stage at a welcoming trade mission conference for Kawasaki. The Japanese industrial giant is sending a 50-strong team with the express intention of doubling its annual pounds 40m spend here. "There is further scope for inward investment in the UK," said a DTI spokesman. "The new president has great respect for what Michael Heseltine achieved, and he looks to continue the approach of the former president." We may expect the same nodding-through of virtually any company merger, though the style may be a little more discreet. "He is very much a back-corridor, low-key operator," said a close observer of Lang's ministerial manner.

Ron Gow, assistant director of the Scottish CBI, is bullish about Lang's prospects. "We found him a very good advocate for business. We welcome his promotion. Scotland is a micro-economy in its own right. He has successfully managed a wide range of responsibilities, and that brings a sense of balance to his personality."

But his critics argue that his lasting monument north of the border will be the shambles of the publicly funded, privately owned Health Care International hospital on Clydebank, which has gone into receivership. He was associated with it both as a junior minister and as Secretary of State. Labour will not let him forget that. "He is a master of presenting an argument plausibly," observes Wilson. "But no one believes a word of it."

Lang lists his recreations as skiing, golf, shooting, sailing and music. He will have rather less time to indulge these passions now. He will shortly move into the expensively refurbished DTI headquarters at 1 Victoria Street, a little nearer the Commons. His office on the seventh floor may be even larger than Hezza's tennis-court-sized suite. Here, he will have to ponder the mysteries of industrial relations (expect no significant trade union legislation before the election) and pay (which is terra incognita; he is awaiting the publication of the Greenbury Report with less than bated breath).

What nobody disputes is that the great charmer, who is married with two grown-up daughters, can handle the press. At a presentation of media awards in Glasgow a couple of years ago, the Scottish press pack, a fearful sight at the best of times, was growling hostility to Lang. But his witty speech had them eating out of his hand. "His finest hour," some said. It did not last long. One of them observed last week: "Lang will not intervene before breakfast. He will just go to breakfast."