THE HUMAN FACTOR: John Robinson clearly failed to understand the machinations of either Stephen Byers and his team or Gordon Brown and his Treasury bovver boys

THE HUMAN FACTOR: John Robinson clearly failed to understand the machinations of either Stephen Byers and his team or Gordon Brown and his Treasury bovver boys - When it comes to doing business with governments, be wary; be very wary. This is the lesson t

by PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When it comes to doing business with governments, be wary; be very wary. This is the lesson that John Robinson and his fellow Railtrack directors have learned. Governments do not stick to straightforward commercial principles: they have electors to please. Ministers do not conform to usual business practice: they have turf wars to fight and, anyhow, few of them know a thing about business beyond running a constituency fete.

Robinson wasn't the first choice for the chairmanship of Railtrack, but he was prepared to say yes to a job that others saw as a ticket to hell. His predecessor, Sir Philip Beck, survived in the role simply by keeping a profile so low that few even realised he was there.

Gerald Corbett's experience as chief executive of Railtrack demonstrated the full horrors facing a businessman trying to work with politicians. He was not the most adept front man for a company in crisis, but few would have coped better with the unreasonableness of his political masters. They put him at the mercy of layer upon layer of regulation; they vilified him after the Ladbroke Grove crash, then went into panic mode after the Hatfield disaster. They had no concern as to how he might reconcile their demands with those of his other masters in the City, only of how the situation would be seen by the electorate.

Robinson had only to look at Corbett's experience to see why Sir John Parker had suddenly found that family illness precluded him from taking up the Railtrack chair. The patient is now sufficiently recovered to allow the Lattice chairman to become deputy chairman of RMC, from where he can reflect on a lucky escape.

That Robinson, hardly a superstar of the business world, thought he could handle the Government where others had so stupendously failed betrays either arrogance or ignorance. He clearly failed to understand the machinations of either Stephen Byers and his transport team or Gordon Brown and his Treasury bovver boys and girls.

But then Sir Alastair Morton, a commercial heavyweight, was confounded by the politicians. He had stood his ground against international financiers and investors to ensure the Channel Tunnel became a reality. New Labour, however, proved too much for him. His desire to make Britain's railways work, which had prompted him to take on the leadership of the Strategic Rail Authority, was thwarted by bosses who did not even mention to him their plans to put Railtrack into administration till they had told Robinson. Young Richard Bowker thinks he can succeed where Sir Alastair failed, but his confidence is born of scant experience of politicians.

Morton's sense of frustration is shared by others who have tried to work with government only to find that it is working against them. Chris Woodhead, for instance, who was as driven in his crusade to improve standards in British schools as Morton was to rescue the railways, eventually gave up in despair. He has gone very public with his anger over the way that the Government's obsession with perception rather than reality meant that the improvements he wanted to see did not materialise. The politicians favoured launching 'new initiatives' with plenty of publicity; hours would be devoted to debate over whether teachers should be renamed as 'learning professionals'. This was not Woodhead's way and he is now firmly ensconced in the private sector.

Down in Greenwich, there still stands a huge monument to the Government's preference for style over substance. The Dome was a project that many business people backed, coming to regret their decision long before the chaos of that memorable New Year's Eve, when many company chiefs and their guests were stranded on a bleak station platform. They had been persuaded to back the project only to find that the Government wanted their cash but not their criticisms.

Yet business people cannot avoid involvement with government in some form. The formidable Sir John Cuckney found himself at the centre of a furious political row as he tried to steer the Westland helicopter company through financial crisis. His concern was to save the jobs that were so important to Yeovil, but the then Tory government was divided as to whether he should turn to the US or Europe for salvation. The row led to Michael Heseltine's resignation from the Cabinet.

As a customer, HMG can be more demanding than most. To be fair, there are moves to improve its procurement process, and the recruitment of a top manager from the private sector, Peter Gershon, seems to be making it more efficient. Having been at Marconi, a major government supplier, Gershon knew the risk he was taking in moving inside. It would benefit all taxpayers if he had more success than Morton, Robinson et al.

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