Some awkward questions arise out of the ashes of MG Rover

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The end, when it came, was all of a piece with the shambles that has marked the long decline of car-making at Longbridge and that of the Rover marque. It was also hedged about with awkward questions.

The end, when it came, was all of a piece with the shambles that has marked the long decline of car-making at Longbridge and that of the Rover marque. It was also hedged about with awkward questions.

Why was it that the demise of a private company was announced by a cabinet minister, with the head of MG Rover's main trade union sitting beside her? Was the company in administration or not at the time when the minister announced it? The directors and outside auditors insisted that it was not - although, of course, the very announcement that it was in administration made that eventuality unavoidable.

And what of the timing? Everything about the death throes of MG Rover exudes unseemly brinkmanship. Did the company directors - or the Chinese - deliberately seek to bring matters to a head around the time of the election in the hope that a generous bail-out would be on offer? Is it conceivable that, once the negotiations in China broke down, ministers forced the pace of administration to pre-empt an announcement later in the election campaign, when it might prove still more perilous? And was it coincidence that the announcement was made on the eve of the Pope's funeral - the one day when there would be no campaigning and television channels were otherwise engaged? After all, this government is not without form in media manipulation.

Amid all the questions, however, two certainties shine out. The first is that this last chapter is the culmination of many years of misjudgement and mismanagement, first at British Leyland and latterly at MG Rover. British car-workers may have a reputation for bolshiness and poor productivity, much of it deserved, but the success of the Mini, the Nissan plant and our technical R&D demonstrate that Britain does not have to be a graveyard for car-makers. Even if Rover dies, the MG marque may yet have a future.

The second is that the collapse of this one-time national symbol and major regional employer when an election campaign is in full swing has the potential to inflict serious political damage on the Government. It may be that neither Rover nor car-making tugs at British heart-strings quite so strongly as once they did, but the prospect of large-scale redundancies across a region where the Labour vote may be far from secure cannot be a cheerful one for the Government to contemplate. No wonder Tony Blair made a detour between the Vatican and Prince Charles's wedding to take part in talks in Birmingham. No wonder the Government has rustled up an emergency assistance package for suppliers. There will be a temptation - which must be resisted - to intervene directly.

The greater peril for Mr Blair lies in the message that the collapse of MG Rover conveys far beyond the West Midlands. For weeks the Prime Minister has signalled that his government's record of economic competence would be at the centre of Labour's campaign. This week he finally brought the Chancellor centre stage. But the saga of MG Rover - from its fire sale to Phoenix, to the personal enrichment of its directors, to the clumsy efforts to save it - tells a different story, which took place not only on this government's watch, but with its involvement. The image of a British prime minister pleading in vain with a foreign government to prolong a British company's life is the last sort of election publicity Labour needs.

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