Whittaker an unlikely champion of the underdog

"If Mr Heseltine goes ahead, he will have won his campaign for a competition policy that is understanding almost to the point of cosiness about the problems of business."
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The Independent Online
oachers may make good gamekeepers in the countryside, but it is a suspect notion when consumer protection and competition are at stake. If Nigel Whittaker, former corporate affairs director of Kingfisher, is indeed about to be appointed as director general of fair trading, as widely supposed, it would be a mistake. Anyone who has met him knows that Mr Whittaker is a man of many talents and charms but as head of the Office of Fair Trading he would be totally inappropriate. That Michael Heseltine should even consider him the right man for the job shows how far the President of the Board of Trade has lost touch with underlying realities.

Like Graeme Odgers before he joined the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Mr Whittaker's most recent background is in business. The fundamental objection is not the potential for conflicts of interest, however, though that must exist. Rather, it is a problem of attitudes.

The OFT, if it is to do its job at all, has to be a champion of the consumer against monopoly and restrictive practice and of the underdog in business against the powerful. Mr Whittaker may well have the motivation to take on such a role, though many businessmen would have to adjust their mind sets dramatically. But as the Personal Investment Authority found when it appointed Joe Palmer, a former insurance company chief executive as chairman, even if the person concerned has the right attitudes, outsiders will regard the institution as compromised.

Hiring Mr Whittaker, who left Kingfisher with a payoff and pension top- up of pounds 950,000 earlier this year, will send out all the wrong signals. Not that a gigantic golden handshake is any bar to recruitment in Mr Heseltine's department. This week he appointed John Robb, who left Wellcome with pounds 2m after the Glaxo takeover, as chairman of the new nuclear holding company that is to be privatised next year.

Mr Whittaker, a barrister by training, is one of the better-known figures in retailing, at least to the press. Of late, however, his high profile does not appear to have been matched by performance; Kingfisher's recent record was poor enough for institutions to force a purge. If Mr Heseltine goes ahead, there will be businessmen at the top of both the MMC and the OFT. He will have won his campaign for a competition policy that is understanding almost to the point of cosiness about the problems of business.

Mr Heseltine does not perhaps care too much any longer what the voters think. He must realise, however, that Mr Whittaker's appointment will be seen as evidence of the Government's lack of interest in consumer protection, that it will reinforce the growing view that Great Britain Limited is what matters to the President of the Board of Trade to the exclusion of 15 years of Conservative belief in the vitality and capability that tough competition introduces into business behaviour. Maybe that is what he wants.