When it comes to privatisation, I've got the dirt

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I was standing the other day at the buffet bar of a 125 High Speed Inter-City Shuttle Service, or what we used to call a train, and was just about to be served with a Clement Freudburger du jour or whatever it is they call food these days, when a man pushed in front of me with a murmured apology ("Sorry about this - bit of an emergency") and ordered a large gin and tonic. He then proceeded to pay for it by cheque, asking the steward to provide him with a receipt with an amount on it that was a go od deal larger than what he had written on the cheque.

I looked more closely at the man. I recognised him at once. It was my old friend Adrian Wardour-Street.

"Adrian!" I cried. "What brings a high-profile public relations guru like you on to public transport to rub shoulders with the likes of me?"

"Dear boy," he said. "How very nice to see you! I would offer you a drink, but it would mean asking the poor man to write out another receipt."

"I'm fine," I said. "So, what brings you on to British Rail?"

"I work for it," he said, "Or at least I work for these new people who are taking over."

"Railtrack?" I said.

"Something like that. Come and sit down and I'll tell you all about it."

Moments later we were ensconced in his first-class carriage accommodation, or what we used to call a couple of seats, and he was telling me the most improbable story.

"You know that the railway system is being privatised?"

"Yes," I said.

"Do you know why?"

"Yes," I said. "The Government is desperate to lose the next election. This is a sure-fire way to do so."

Adrian looked taken aback.

"Are you sure? How do you know that?"

Satire was never Adrian's strong point. Peter Cook might have lived and died in vain as far as he was concerned.

"No," I said, "In fact, the reason the railways are being privatised is that the Government can't think of anything else to do."

"You may be right," said Adrian. "The fact remains that privatisation does work. It succeeds. Look at British Airways ..."

"We are always told to look at British Airways when the subject comes up," I said. "OK, I am now looking at British Airways. All I can see is an airline that charges a pound a mile to get to Paris."

"Well, you may be right there," said Adrian. "But our remit when getting the railways ready was to emulate BA. And that is what we have done."

"You mean, you've introduced duty-free trolleys on the trains?" I asked.

"No. We've introduced a dirty tricks department."

"You've what?"

"It may not have escaped your notice," said Adrian, looking round nervously, "that BA's chief innovation in recent years was the hiring of a gang of unprincipled operators who tried to bully the passengers of other airlines, chiefly Richard Branson's Virgin line, into selling back their tickets and coming over to BA."

"And sabotaged Richard Branson's hot-air balloon, too, no doubt," I joked. Adrian did not laugh.

"Careful," he said. "That was never proved. In any case, we thought that we would go one better in the dirty tricks department. That's what I'm handling at the moment. It's a new rail skulduggery department. It's called ..." He lowered his voice. "... Railtrick."

"I don't believe it," I said. "You mean you're actually ringing up everyone who is travelling by road or air and offering them a better deal on the railway? You're buying people's cars, maybe?"

"Bigger game than that," said Adrian. "We see the biggest threat to privatised rail as coming not from public opinion, but from the Government. If it should change its mind or back down, we're sunk."

"That makes sense," I said. "But ... but you can't blackmail the Government!"

"Wanna bet?" said Adrian. "We have some pretty good dirt that we've dug up on individual members of the Cabinet. This goes right to the top. I mean, right to the top. And we have made it pretty clear that if the Government gets cold feet and decides to back down on rail privatisation, then we will let it be known to the press that John Major ..."

At that moment the train hooted and roared into a tunnel. When it had re-emerged, Adrian was fast asleep. There was a note on his lap. I picked it up carefully and read it. It said: "How nice! Yes, another G&T would be lovely, dear boy ..."