The helmsman of privatisation runs into turbulent waters

DAVID HELLIER

Lord Walker, the former Cabinet minister and one of the British Gas non-executives under fire for the way the company has failed its shareholders, is no stranger to controversy.

A Cabinet minister until 1990, Lord Walker partnered Jim Slater at the Slater Walker property company in the 1960s and agreed to work alongside Robert Maxwell in the months before the tycoon's empire fell apart.

Lord Walker joined British Gas in 1990, shortly after leaving his Cabinet post as Welsh Secretary. He had been the minister responsible for privatising British Gas in the first place.

In November 1990 he entered into discussions with the late Robert Maxwell with a view to becoming a non-executive chairman of the tycoon's publicly quoted company, MCC, which was primarily a publishing company.

He was introduced to Mr Maxwell by Sir Michael Richardson, the then-chairman of Smith New Court who was advising on the flotation of Mirror Group Newspapers. Sir Michael felt it would be better if the City and the public saw that Mr Maxwell was concentrating on his newspaper interests while finding respectable figures to look after some of his other main interests.

However, the relationship between Lord Walker and the late tycoon broke down quickly as the two men quarrelled over precisely what the former politician's role should be.

Lord Walker left MCC in September 1991 after six months' work as a non- executive director, with a pounds 150,000 pay-off and a Mercedes car.

In the recent trial of the Maxwell brothers, Kevin Maxwell told the jury that his father had said to him about Lord Walker that "he was damned if he was to hand over the stewardship of the company to an outsider who had not contributed to its growth and had no publishing background".

At British Gas Lord Walker, who is also listed as being a director of Dalgety and Tate and Lyle, has been criticised, along with the other directors, for not being more proactive. One shareholder said yesterday: "The non- executives appear to have been unable to stand up to their own chairman. They have been seen to have been weak and ineffective."

Lord Walker was unavailable for comment yesterday. Friends of his, however, said the comments ascribed to him on Tuesday on the break-up plans were inaccurate.

He was quoted in the Financial Times as having in the past described break-up proposals as "lunacy".

Yesterday his friends said that he supported the plans and had never made any such comment in the context of the present proposals.

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