PR men scramble for pounds 2bn defence deal

Chris Blackhurst traces the lobby firms' battle over the order for 90 Army attack helicopters

Even hard-bitten back-benchers, used to the great lobbying battles of recent years - the Channel Tunnel rail-link, Post Office privatisation, Sunday openinghours - have experienced nothing like it.

For the last few months they have been subjected to a relentless bombardment by three of Britain's biggest defence companies, desperate to win the pounds 2bn order for 90 attack helicopters for the British Army.

The three - British Aerospace, GEC and Westland - have been fighting tooth and nail, using freebie trips, threats of job losses and even the intervention of the new French President to further their cause. Even the names of their champions give a flavour of their war. BAe is in partnership with Eurocopter of France and Germany to build the Tiger; Westland has teamed up with McDonnell-Douglas of the US to sell the Apache; GEC has joined with Bell Helicopter of the US to push the Cobra-Venom.

The struggle has raged at the Paris and Farnborough Air Shows, across the lawns of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea and the Imperial War Museum, inside the historic Banqueting House in Whitehall, and down the corridors of power in the MoD and Department of Trade and Industry.

Today, all three are agreed, is decision-day. The MoD prefers the "US" Apache; all eyes now switch to this morning's Cabinet where Michael Heseltine might, just might, put his considerable influence behind the "European" option, the Tiger.

One thing is certain, when the result is announced, two teams of lobbyists and public relations men will hang their heads in defeat; one will reach for the champagne.

Waiting nervously this morning are Wilf Weeks and his team at GJW, the Westminster lobbying firm, and Bergmans, a PR consultancy in Newcastle, for Westland; Barry Joseph, Peter Maclaughlin and Co at BAe's "Tiger Team" headquarters in Farnborough; and Lowe Bell, Sir Tim Bell's communications agency, for GEC.

In his office close to Whitehall, another figure may show more than a passing interest. David Hart, multi-millionaire eminence grise to Cabinet ministers Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo, possessor of a security pass to enter the MoD, unpaid ministerial special adviser, is opposed to the European bid. He wants the choice to be a purely military one. In other words, he wants the Army's choice, Apache.

The battle for the contract has at time been farcical. GEC thought it would be a good idea to park its Cobra-Venom on the lawns of the Imperial War Museum and show it to MPs and officials. As Lord Weinstock, GEC's normally camera-shy chief executive, posed for pictures, BAe parked an ad-van on a meter across the road extolling the virtues of Tiger. When Jacques Chirac visited the Paris Air Show, Westland executives looked on forlornly as the new French President and his entourage, ignored their stand and headed for the BAe pavilion to praise the Euro-copter.

MPs were flown to Paris for the air show and to Marseilles to inspect the Eurocopter factory. For those who could not make it, BAe landed a Tiger at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. "We brought one across to show them it existed," said a BAe executive, referring to disinformation that the machine had not even been built.

Westland prided itself on avoiding stunts. At least that was what it said. However, a grand bash at the 17th-century Banqueting House, ostensibly to celebrate GKN's first anniversary of taking over Westland, turned into a session of firm hand-shakes as executives pressed the case for the Apache.

MPs found themselves targeted from all sides. A West Midlands Labour MP was told by a company in his constituency that if BAe won, 100 jobs would be safe. Then, he was told by another company if Westland lost, it might mean 150 jobs going.

Last Wednesday, about 200 BAe employees, mainly from Stevenage, visited the Commons to lobby MPs and plead directly for their jobs.

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