Why I'm switching to GEC

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A few months ago I decided that 10 years as a peripatetic minister was going to be long enough. I had always wanted to return to industry as a final career. I could see from the age profile of the GEC board that an opportunity might crop up when Jim Prior and John Lippitt retired to use my experience to support the exports of one of Britain's largest manufacturers.

Mr Lippitt is a former deputy secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry who was no doubt employed by GEC because his knowledge and overseas contacts were as extensive, if not more so, than mine.

Among all our competitors it is accepted that businessmen become politicians and vice versa during the course of their careers. In industry they earn more, in government they gain contacts and experience; these are the ingredients of a successful partnership vital to winning overseas orders.

Of course, there should be rules covering these relationships. I have been scrupulous in following - in fact, voluntarily exceeding - the recommendations suggested in Lord Nolan's report. But this, the Independent says, does not leave a good taste in the mouth.

This newspaper says there should have been a decent interval between me going from trade minister to non-executive director. What is a decent interval? I am starting part-time as a non-executive director (not, I add, being paid a six-figure salary), three-and-a-half months after I left government. I am going to take many more months understanding the business of GEC before I shall be sufficiently trained to market and sell its products around the world. Being export director is an entirely different role from being trade minister.

Had I left a longer period before joining GEC to start my induction, no doubt the Labour Party and the Liberals would still have complained, the Independent would still have demanded a decent interval and the relationships which I have established and which are vital would have been lost and taken over by our overseas competitors. It is just not possible to pick up 18 months later where I left off last July. Exporting is an esoteric art, it is also tough, and once your foot is out of the door it is very hard to put it back again.

We can be whiter than white (compared with everyone else, we already are!) and avoid any bad taste in anyone's mouth. But if we keep politics and business too far apart, then we won't get the business, export orders will go to countries where politicians and businessmen work closely together, and British jobs and tax revenue will disappear. You can't have it both ways.

Lord Nolan's recommendations are a sensible balance. It is a pity the Independent can't defend them. At least I have abided by them.

The writer stepped down as minister for trade in July.