To be watching the last days of poor old Rover is to intrude on canine grief. A wise vet would have put this dog down long ago. I was asking only last week when Rover would go under: after the election? Some means could surely be found, after all those years on and off life support, to make the patient hold on until Friday 6 May. The Prime Minister must have thought so too. Had he not sent John Prescott and then Gordon Brown all the way to China, to coax Shanghai Automotive into giving the dog a good home? Had he not himself picked up the telephone to exercise his powers of persuasion on China’s President? Could anything have gone wrong in translation? He was on his way to Rome for the Pope’s funeral when, with four Fridays still to go, Rover keeled over. The Chinese, it appeared, had pulled out. Was the Department of Trade and Industry up to its old trick of finding a good day to bury bad news? There was nothing for it but to fly home and rush to Rover’s basket, holding a paw and exuding concern, with Gordon Brown in support, looking grave. All was not lost, we were promised. Time, at least, would be bought. The Chinese could be revisited. The DTI would provide an injection of cash, so that the wages could still be paid, even if no cars were produced, and Rover could live on in a persistent vegetative state until the vets chose to shake their heads and switch the machine off.
Licensed to lose
The trouble with this prognosis is obvious. Shanghai Automotive knew enough about the West to take advice from N.M. Rothschild, and pulled out because Rover looked insolvent. Now we all know that it is. The men from Price Waterhouse are at the wheel. Their four predecessors, who bought control for a tenner and did so well out of the assets, now talk about putting some of them back, so as to help the administrators find a buyer — but who is going to bid up for a licence to lose money? We are back where we were five years ago, when BMW, having spent a fortune on Rover, gave up, and offered to pass the Longbridge plant on with a dowry of £430 million to secure its workers’ future. The difference now is that the workers are five years older and the £430 million is no longer there. Rover has eaten it.
A Byers’ market
The losers can thank Stephen Byers for that. He was in the DTI’s revolving chair when Rover last needed rescuing. The only offer had come from Jon Moulton, who was prescribing strong medicine. Rover, he said, had no future as a mass producer of cars, but a scaled-down plant at Longbridge could make sports cars, and his venture capital fund would be willing to back it. Then up popped four buoyant Brummies to promise that in their hands Rover would have a splendid future. They knew what they were doing, even if the hapless Secretary of State did not. This deal would secure their own future. He fell for it, and went on to apply his acumen and knowledge of commercial law to Railtrack. That, and his adviser who believed in burying bad news, proved fatal to him. Patricia Hewitt is now in the revolving chair and has been left holding the syringe of money.
Squander in vain
Rover has needed injections like these for most of a working lifetime. The merger that called it into being as British Leyland was promoted by an ambitious young minister called Anthony Wedgwood Benn. (‘Tony Benn’ came later.) Soon enough this business was absorbing public money by the billion, in the days when a billion pounds was worth having. In the end enough had been spent to persuade Roland Smith to pick it up for British Aerospace. Then came BMW’s turn to find itself on the end of a hospital pass. How many working lives, how much talent and effort have been squandered in a hopeless cause? They were casualties of our deep-seated instinct to rally to causes like this — building ships on the Clyde was another — in the belief that they were national treasures and must be preserved. This instinct to double up when backing losers can still be seen at work in the public sector, with the National Health Service the biggest treasure of them all.
Longbridge on rails
I spent a poignant day, earlier this month, in what was once the Longbridge of rail. This plant with its 50-ton cranes could build steam locomotives — Lord Nelsons, King Arthurs, Merchant Navies, so my railway correspondent, I.K. Gricer, tells me. Alas, the demand has dried up, and the plant subsists on coachwork, but will close at the end of the year. No doubt its 12-acre site will be home to a business park or supermarket. At least those who work there and now find their jobs under sentence have been spared a visit from an anxious Prime Minister to tell them that British steam leads the world and that he will struggle to keep the plant open, at least for another three weeks.
The Army has Tewts — tactical exercises without troops — and New Labour has Pecwops. These are press conferences without the press, making them easier to film and to handle, and I have been fascinated to note that Pecwops have brought Tony Blair to Billingsgate. The City’s handsome old fish market, best known until now for its bad language, needs friends. Citibank took it over and fitted it out to house its new stockbroking business, but the brokers never moved in. (I got wind, at the time, of a lingering aroma in the haddock gallery.) Then it was left to stand empty as a recovery centre, kept in reserve in case the bank’s main office was put out of action. Now it belongs to a secretive group of property investors, operating out of Jersey. For the moment, they let it out for events like fashion shows, or Pecwops, at a rent which has been quoted at £25,000 a time. New Labour must think that the location was worth it, for who would associate the Prime Minister with anything fishy?