Greeting Goliath with a grin

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The Independent Online
AS Richard Branson came in, every camera converged. 'Hello]' he said to the flashbulbs, grinning away in his pale green suit and his unbuttoned shirt. It was easy to follow his course through the crowded ballroom of the Grosvenor House Hotel: mikes hung in the air above him and his head was haloed by light.

A few yards away a smallish man was chatting to an executive or two. Everything about him proclaimed authority and influence: his expensively tailored dark suit, his prosperous stomach, his gold watch-chain, his shiny shoes, his dour, bulldog face. He sipped at a glass of red wine. The media ignored him. He was Lord King.

He held out his hand in a welcoming gesture and laid it on Branson's person. 'Come on, let's have a drink,' he said. A yard-deep jostle of photographers closed round them: Lord King of British Airways and Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic had not met since the court case in which David slew, temporarily at least, this corporate Goliath.

'Congratulations on the award]' said milord. Branson gave a slightly startled smile. The award that had flashed, naturally, into his head was the pounds 610,000 BA had agreed to pay him as compensation for the 'dirty tricks' campaign to steal his customers and damage his reputation. But Lord King was talking about Branson's imminent triumph at the 'Airline of the Year' awards ceremony.

The two men shook hands, entirely at cross purposes. Cameras rolled. Everyone around was smiling - with good cheer? with embarrassment? - except Lord King. The mouth of the chairman of BA kept, except for a momentary flicker, its natural straight line. 'Who was behind the dirty tricks campaign?' a News at Ten reporter called out, rather spoiling the picture of accord. Lord King's pugnacious face turned stiffly away. After a few moments he raised his hand in a farewell like a karate chop and brought it down to grip Branson's shoulder. Whatever his other qualities, Lord King has not been gifted with grace.

The press stayed, clinging to Branson's words. Lord King departed to a corner of the room, where he stood with two or three suited executives. Two BA stewardesses in their box caps followed at a couple of paces like demure bridesmaids.

'Whoo-hee]' came the cries from the audience. Virgin Atlantic had won awards for best in-flight food, best cabin staff, best in-flight entertainment, best lounges. At the front of the crowd Eve Branson, Richard's mum, smart in black and pearls, clapped deliriously - 'Woo-er] Wonderful] He never won any prizes as a boy for scholarship - but all the sport prizes,' she hissed. 'The loony prizes]'

'And the 1993 Executive Travel, Wagons-Lits award for Airline of the Year - Virgin Atlantic]' said the announcer. Mrs Branson was overcome. 'I've never said I'm proud of him,' she said. 'But it's not every boy that gives his mother a DC-3.'

And then came a surprise award for outstanding achievements. To Lord King. 'No one can doubt his wholehearted commitment to the airline and the business,' said the presenter. And that, of course, is not in question. There was applause, but this time no shouts of 'Woo-er]' The cameras focused on Branson's hands, clapping. His mother's hands were rather less active. Lord King gave a three-line speech, thanking 'the dedicated staff that we have'.

The problem is that this staff still presumably contains some of its most dedicated members, the dirty tricksters. No one has yet been sacked. An internal inquiry has concluded that no one on BA's board is responsible. Lord King is in the clear, knowing nothing about it. Who was to blame? Lord King soon slipped away, perhaps to look into this, leaving Branson to the TV cameras. Behind their boss, scarlet women - Virgin stewardesses in bright red uniforms - stalked to and fro, laden with awards.

'Maybe it was the quality of our operations which caused British Airways to act as they did in the last few years,' mused Branson over his beer. 'That incredible over-reaction . . .'

But he was, if a touch complacent, gracious in victory. 'We're in talks now. I hope we put the unpleasantness of the past two years behind us. We're both British airlines. It would be nice to see if we could take on the world and win.'

His mother was still rapturous. 'He's a chip off the old block]' she said. The old block in question, Ted Branson, was also present. Mrs Branson is probably correct about the source of her son's extraordinary adventurousness: her husband, it turns out, rode into the Second World War on a horse.

'When Lord King came in,' said Ted, 'he put his arm around me. Wanted the photographers to take a picture of himself with Richard Branson's father.' He paused. 'It wasn't by my invitation,' he said drily.

There was no Lord King at Canary Wharf the following day to reveal the new dressing for British Airways' tarnished image. The new uniforms for its cabin staff stalked down the catwalk. But superficial alterations and a cheery handshake are not enough to remove the news of BA's tactics from the mind. Down the walk they went: leather gloves, perfect for leaving no fingerprints on shredding machines; roomy greatcoats with capacious pockets for other firms' documents; and, swathed round the stewardesses' shoulders, that indispensible fashion item, the large, dark cover-up.

In milord's place stood Sir Colin Marshall, BA's chief executive. Selina Scott, dark-clad, mini-skirted, was fronting the show. She stepped up to Sir Colin, mike in hand, and we braced ourselves for the inevitable question: 'Who did it?' But she only gave him a large smile and asked if he had enjoyed the show. Sir Colin said smoothly that he and BA were looking to the future, which is probably a more reassuring vista than the immediate past.

At the end of the show the purple-suited girls assembled and played 'Land of Hope and Glory'. They had showed us almost half a decade of uniforms, from utility to A-line. The only line that didn't seem to be included was resignation on principle - but then, as someone said, it's not in fashion.