Beefed-up team allays City fears

Two of Margaret Beckett’s new DTI line-up, in particular, bring a wealth of relevant experience

The Labour Government last week set to its pre-election pledges of strengthening British exports and creating open and competitive markets at home and abroad by announcing its new line-up at the Department of Trade and Industry.

Fears in the City about what it regards as the `old Labour’ character of some of the new team under the leadership of Margaret Beckett were somewhat assuaged by a few notable appointments.

First came the surprise appointment of Lord Clinton-Davis, aged 68, as Beckett’s second-in-command. A rare breed among `new Labour’, the former Hackney MP served as a junior trade minister in the 1974-79 Labour administration and is an ex-European environment commissioner. His wealth of government and European experience will go some way to silence critics who feel Labour’s DTI team lacks the experience to fulfil its promises.

The appointment of Sir David Simon, chairman of British Petroleum, to a new position of minister for European trade and competitiveness was also seen as an effective means of beefing up the commercial and business experience of Labour’s DTI team. Simon is widely credited as having revived the fortunes of the oil producer since he took over from Sir Bob Horton in 1992.

As a keen supporter of the European Union, he will undoubtedly help the new Government’s efforts to put Britain’s footing in Europe on surer ground.

Simon is relinquishing his £1.2m salary package at BP in return for a peerage and a highly unusual ministerial role, straddling both the DTI and the Treasury. He will also be a member of the Economic and European Cabinet Committee and a taskforce on Britain’s presidency of the EU.

Tony Blair, the prime minister, said Simon’s new post was `vital to the future success of our country’ and that it would make good Labour’s pledge to build a modern and dynamic economy in partnership with business.

Simon’s post will cover some of the hottest European issues, including competitiveness, completion of the single market, and spreading flexible labour markets in the EU.

In fulfilling his role, he will be supported by an inter-departmental taskforce of ministers and officials, but he will doubtless have to draw deeply on his experience of serving on the EC’s Competitiveness Advisory Group. He has also been a member of an inquiry into the single market chaired by Lord Sheppard, which is due to report later this month.

By Arlene Foster